Nick Keenan took the basketball and raced down the court at LBC Middle School on Tuesday – in his wheelchair.
He would get a shot off and – make it or not – he got applause and cheers of appreciation during the game.
Nick enjoyed this opportunity through a program called Project Unify. He is a special needs student of teacher Allison Newbegin, who hosted the inclusion contest with special needs children from Aiken Middle School and Paul Knox Middle School.
But there was so much more. Other students from the three schools served as buddies and mentors. Alex Johnson was among several students to push Nick up and down the court.
“It's fun,” Alex said. “I like hanging out with everybody here.”
Project Unify is sponsored throughout the state by the S.C. Special Olympics. In Aiken County, the program started at Midland Valley High School and has spread to other county high schools.
Teachers invited some of the middle schools to attend an inclusion football game at Silver Bluff High School last month. Newbegin brought some of her students and their buddies; by then she had already started planning the LBC tournament. She has been amazed by her school's response. Other teachers brought their students to the gym to provide support.
“Our Buddy Club has stepped up and helped my kids practice,” Newbegin said. “Our Ambassador Club is an actual class, and they made all the posters for us and the other schools. My kids have been so excited. They knew it was a tournament and said, 'We're going to beat those other schools.'”
Mike Epps, LBC's basketball coach and physical education teacher, said his wife has brought their daughter Carrie to all his games. This event was emotional for Epps, as Carrie is one of Newbegin's students. He helped plan the event and served as the referee for the first half. For the first time, he watched his daughter get a chance to play basketball on that court.
“It's great for Carrie and all these kids,” Epps said. “They look at all the others cheering for them, and those are students they think are superkids.”
Esmerelda Cortez has one buddy, Megan O'Banion. Yet, at the football game last month, Meagan and three other classmates hung out with her the entire time. They did so again Tuesday.
“Ezzie is leaving (to go to Midland Valley) next year,” Megan said. “I'm really sad about that.”
Aiken Middle teacher Eszter Mad-Szabo was delighted to bring her students to LBC.
“It's important for us to come out and be together,” she said. “Everybody can see that these kids can have just as much fun as other kids.”
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT LBC Middle School student Nick Keenan, in wheelchair, celebrates a basket at a Project Unify event for special needs children. Volunteer “buddies” from the school, including Nick’s mentor Alex Johnson, behind him, celebrate wildly during the three-school tournament Tuesday.×