By Danielle Jania, Special Education Department Chair at Thornwood High School in South Holland
I started at Thornwood eight years ago as a special education teacher.
Thornwood had always been involved in the spring track and field events for Special Olympics. When I become department chair, I started to see how involved our students wanted to be in extra-curricular activities. A team of teachers and myself began to research all the different activities and athletics that Special Olympics had for our students to become involved in. Through this, we were able to increase the Special Olympics sports at Thornwood High School from one (track and field) to nine (track and field, “B” and “C” team for basketball, snowshoeing, bocce, bowling, cheerleading, volleyball, and soccer).
We now have over 80 Special Olympic athletes at Thornwood High School. We were able to participate in the Winter and Spring Games this year. This has given our students the opportunity to participate in a sport they love, interact with athletes from all over, and visit many different places. It has also taught our students teamwork, sportsmanship, and hard work and dedication does pay off. Besides teaching the Special Olympics athletes many important things, it has also taught the entire school community of Thornwood about Special Olympics.
Thornwood High School hosted its first Special Olympics basketball game this year. Our principal Mr. Willis allowed the entire student body to come and support our athletes – IT WAS AMAZING!!! As I still think about this day, it brings tears to my eyes! It was such an experience to have our athletes play in the main gym in front of such a large audience.
Every Friday, we have a parade that is lead by the band and followed by the football players through the hallways at Thornwood High School before the football game. We decided to try this and have a parade the Friday before the Special Olympics track and field events. What an experience!!!! All of our special Olympic athletes participated in the parade. The entire school community stood outside their classrooms and cheered our athletes on. Again, what a great experience for both the athletes and the school community.
As a school community, we had many general education students ask how they can become involved in Special Olympics. This allowed us to create the T-Bud program. This program pairs a general education student with a special Olympic athlete. The T-Buds support our athletes at all of the events and many of them have even continued their involvement outside of the school day. I never would have thought that Special Olympics could have brought a school community together the way that it has here at Thornwood High School. This truly was because of the wonderful staff, administration, and student body that encompass what Thornwood High School stands for.
Special Olympics has transformed my life in more ways than I could ever begin to put into this short essay. I have been a girl’s varsity basketball coach at Thornwood High School for six years. As a varsity coach, I began to believe that winning was everything. Basketball began to be less fun for me and more of a chore. It started to be so stressful that I began to lose the love of the game.
I will never forget the day we hosted the Special Olympic basketball game at Thornwood High School and the student body was there to cheer on and support our athletes. Our student body and staff was so supportive – they made signs, brought pom-poms, cheered, etc. Even when one of our students missed a shot or a lay-up, they still cheered. We were playing Stagg High School and they even cheered every time one of their players scored a basket. It made me realize that this is what basketball should be – something that is fun, enjoyable, and exciting. The athletes were so excited just to play in the game, it didn’t matter what the score was or how many points someone scored. I was in amazement.
This event definitely transformed me in coaching basketball, leading to more transformations in my life. I realized how important Special Olympics is both to the athletes at Thornwood High School and to the athletes all over the area. I have gotten my family and friends involved in Special Olympics and see the impact that is has made on them also. I truly enjoy going spending time with the athletes, watching the events, spending weekends away with them, and getting to know their families better. This has been a wonderful and life changing experience for me, my staff, my family, my friends and the entire Thornwood school community.