Students with disabilities rebound on and off the court

Published 2:22 pm Thursday, March 2, 2023

When Xavier Johnson was approaching the age most children start kindergarten, a doctor told his mother, Jasmine Jimenez-Carrasquillo, that her son wasn’t developing skills as quickly as his peers.

He’d had seizures since birth, and by age 4, the full impact his condition would have on his school performance was becoming apparent. Before moving back to Isle of Wight County to start high school, he’d spent most of his elementary and middle school years living with his father in Florida. There, he was able to get the medical treatment he needed but lacked a sense of belonging in his school and struggled academically.

Carrasquillo has seen a remarkable change in her son since he joined Windsor High School’s Tri-Rivers Basketball League team.

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“He catches up a little more each year and the thing that appears to help him the most is doing things that ‘regular’ kids can do,” Carrasquillo said.

The league formed seven years ago with the goal of providing the experience of organized sports to students with disabilities who would ordinarily not get to partake in their schools’ athletic programs. Windsor and Smithfield High School each field a team, as does Surry County High School. The neighboring city of Franklin, Southampton, Greensville and Mecklenburg counties, and Plan Bee Academy, a private Chesapeake school for students age 2½ to 22 with autism or other disabilities, also field teams.

When WHS Tri-Rivers coach Rhonda Endrusick mentioned the team, Carrasquillo encouraged her son to join. Ryan Pringle, Windsor High’s physical education teacher and varsity golf coach, took over coaching the team this year.

“Being able to play basketball in front of his schoolmates has done wonders for his confidence and his patience,” Carrasquillo said.

Tiffany Moore, whose son, Christian Moore, is in ninth grade at Smithfield High School, has a similar story. Like Xavier, Christian has had seizures and now experiences difficulties learning as a result. The difference is Christian was the one who told his parents he wanted to join the team.

“He was very much instrumental in doing it all himself,” Tiffany said. “He came home and told us about it. He found out about the practices.”

The games are designed to mirror a varsity or junior varsity high school sporting event as closely as possible. Boys and girls play on the same team. Each player wears a numbered jersey with his or her school’s name. There are referees and a scoreboard.

At Smithfield, the school’s cheerleaders and band members perform. Different classes will send their students to pack the bleachers and cheer the players on. There’s even away games.

“On the way home from each away game the Windsor team goes out to eat,” Pringle said. “The kids get experience ordering their own food and communicating with others.”

“We go to practice two to three times a week to help develop their knowledge of the game and the importance of playing together as a team,” said Jill Gwaltney, who’s been coaching Smithfield’s Tri-Rivers team for the past six years.

For students in wheelchairs, a portable table-height basket is used.

“It’s just a really beautiful picture of inclusivity where kids are just celebrated,” Tiffany said.

In the audience at a Feb. 9 Windsor home game against Plan Bee were Isle of Wight County School Board Chairman John Collick and his 18-year-old son, Jimmy.

Jimmy was born with Down Syndrome, an intellectual disability, and diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia less than a month after his second birthday. He spent seven months in the hospital, where his heart stopped and he entered a coma for six weeks. He wasn’t expected to survive, Collick said, but has been in remission for nearly 16 years now.

Jimmy is at present the only Isle of Wight student to attend Plan Bee. While he doesn’t play on Plan Bee’s team, he and his father make a point of attending the games.

As for Xavier, “playing basketball has also taught him some life skills that would otherwise be difficult for him to learn,” Carrasquillo said. “He’s learned that practice is important and that sometimes, you can’t make all the shots or win all the games and that’s OK. As long as you tried your best and had fun, you still won.”