Special needs students in the Ozark School District get an rare opportunity; a chance to represent their school as an athlete.
The district sponsors several Special Olympics teams in a variety of sports that allows these students to compete as Ozark Tigers just like their classmates. The students compete in bocce ball, bowling, basketball and track & field.
Coaches and special education teachers Alex Beckman of Ozark Middle School, Tamara Jackson of Ozark Junior High and Erin McElroy of Ozark High School spoke with OI about starting the program and the opportunities they offer to Special Olympians.
“We noticed that there were not many opportunities geared towards our students for them to participate in any extracurricular activities,” they said. “So we decided to start a Special Olympics team to provide students an opportunity to be a part of a team.”
The program is now in its third year with participation tripling since their first year. The teams are for secondary aged students, the same as the other Ozark Schools sports teams.
Each sport competes in Special Olympics tournaments throughout the year but also faces other teams in the Southwest Missouri area. For example, Ozark’s basketball team will face Republic’s Special Olympics team during the halftime or between JV and Varsity games in Ozark and Republic.
The coaches say that will never forget the first night the team played their first home basketball game.
“They were so nervous, and for them, wearing an Ozark jersey, playing at a home game in front of a home crowd, is something these kids never thought they would get to do,” they said. “But to hear everyone cheering on our team, seeing the athletes smiles and how proud of themselves they were made us tear up, and made every ounce of effort worth it.”
The coaches also work with students without disabilities who are “buddies” that help the athletes during their events. The buddies practice with the athletes, cheer them on and dedicate significant amounts of time to their Special Olympian peers.
“I really get to enjoy watching the athletes faces light up with joy when they get to play and have a good time,” Elijah Webb, an 8th grade student who volunteers as a buddy, told OI. “As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, well now the child is giving back to the village.”
The chance to represent their school and compete for crowd of cheering peers brings joy to the athletes.
“I like being on the Special Olympics team. Bowling was my favorite sport, but I really liked playing basketball in front of a crowd at the high school game. I have never been in front of that many people before! It was fun!” 8th grader Jacob Brooks told OI.
“I love to play on the team. It is fun. We do all kinds of sports. When you are on the team, you get jerseys,” 7th grader Ashlynn Oaks added. “My favorite memory of Special Olympics is doing track, basketball, Bocce ball, and bowling with my friends. I love Special Olympics! Other kids would love it too!”
And for all of them, it’s about love of the games.
“I like Special Olympics basketball because I get to meet people and I enjoy being around everyone. I love to play basketball!” 11th grader Joi Keller said to OI.
If you would like to show up and show support for the Ozark Special Olympics basketball team, their next game is Tuesday, February 19th during the halftime of the JV basketball game in Ozark. Game time is approximately 6:40 p.m..