By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Setting out to change the world is never an easy task. At 17 years old, Kalah McVay knows this first-hand.
In her freshman year at McNary High School, McVay volunteered in the Celtics’ developmental learning center (DLC) for developmentally disabled students and what she discovered was a new set of friends who weren’t as involved with the rest of the school as she would have liked.
“I wanted to see them have the opportunity to play sports because it’s been a huge part of my life. I wanted them to be able to have that in their life and be part of something like a team,” McVay said.
At the same time, she was enrolled in the school’s Hands and Words class, which grew out of a movement dedicated to ending bullying and spreading a message of unity among all students at McNary. Instructor Jim Taylor tasked the enrolled students with finding projects they could work on to meet those goals. One of McVay’s hopes at the time was starting up a unified basketball team, comprised of developmentally disabled and fully capable students, to play in the Special Olympics.
She never expected it to be easy, but she also wasn’t fully aware of how big a journey she was embarking on.
“I couldn’t just say I wanted this and go around all the obstacles, I had to be adult about it and work through the system. That was something I hadn’t been confronted by before,” McVay said.
By the end of her freshman year, McVay had made some calls to find out what would be required to make the team a reality, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year that things began moving toward what she envisioned.
She enlisted two McNary teachers, Dan Borreson and Jim Litchfield, to be coaches for the team and the trio met with representatives from Special Olympics to find out what else would be required.
“She showed us everything we needed to do in order to do create the team and, at that point, we knew it was going to be difficult just as far as scheduling. We had to have a place to practice and McNary was booked,” Litchfield said. “But Kalah didn’t let it die.”
At that point, McVay didn’t even have a team to put in a practice gym, but she spent the next year working on enlisting developmentally disabled students and their families to her cause. Between working with the families and Special Olympics, there were more than a few unanticipated hurdles.
“It was challenging working with an organization being 16 or 17 years old because no one believes you as a teenager,” McVay said.
Coupled with the usual suspicions of anyone who is reaching beyond their perceived grasp, McVay also had to allay fears about mixing the two different types of students.
“It has been challenging working with parents. They’re very protective of their kids. You have to have the right able-bodied students working with the developmentally disabled ones,” McVay said.
She ended up finding willing developmentally disabled students at both McNary and Whiteaker Middle School and returned for her junior year at McNary with more of the pieces in place.
“I didn’t really want to do it at first. My favorite sport is actually cheerleading, but I decided to try something a little different,” said Rachel Maddox, a McNary DLC student.
Litchfield helped her recruit three other McNary students, Frank and Paul Rios and DJ Wilson, to be the on-court partners for the team.
“The partners are the coaches on the floor directing them when and where they need to go,” McVay said.
Wilson said he committed to the project without hesitation.
“It was something I wanted to do instantly,” he said.
With the makings of a team, McVay still lacked a space to practice, but she got approval to use the Weddle Elementary School gym the day she returned from winter break in January. They scheduled the first of 10 practices two days later.
“No one was really sure what kinds of ability we would have as a team, but we started with just doing basic drills and and got to the point where the kids were doing lay-ins,” Litchfield said.
Frank Rios said he had to step back from his usual competitive self when it comes academics and athletics, but it wasn’t unpleasant in the least.
“It wasn’t about winning, it was about helping them do something as a team. We all played together. Whether we won or lost, it didn’t matter. It was more about achieving something,” he said.
When it came down to it, he said he had no reservations about making an extra pass to give the developmentally disabled players one more shot at the hoop.
Paul Rios said he wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to practices, but he quickly discovered rewards that had nothing to do with points on a scoreboard.
“They would get these huge smiles on their faces when they’d score and it gave you this warm feeling,” he said.
McVay also got in on the action until a leg injury sidelined her.
Michaela Wiebe, another of the Celtic DLC students on the team, said that learning the game was harder than she anticipated.
“The hardest part was trying not to pass the ball to the other team,” she said. “But I made new friends. A lot of them.”
In addition to what was happening on the court, Litchfield said he noticed families and friends taking the newfound athletes out to practice on their own time.
“It was a big-time commitment on the part of a lot of different people in the lives of the players,” he said. “By the end of the season, we were able to work on things like traveling, double dribbling and in-bounding the ball. It wasn’t always easy, but they came along really well.”
The payoff for all the players was the chance to compete in a tournament in Springfield two weeks ago against other unified teams. When the players got the chance to decide what would be on their jersey, McNary was the unanimous selection.
The team not only competed, but it took second place when all was said and done.
“It was amazing, the kids were really pumped up. It was cool to know where they’d been the first day of practice and then see them down in Springfield. They’re really just like every other athlete, they have goals and they get frustrated like anyone else, but they’d have these huge smiles,” McVay said.
Along the way, new friends were made across lines that might once have divided the two types of students and each of them took something from the process: the joys of trying something new, newly discovered levels of patience, the accomplishment of seeing a dream become reality and an eagerness to do it all again.
“I thought it would feel longer, but it ended up being really short. I just wish it would have gone on for a few more weeks,” Wilson said. His feeling about the experience was echoed by every single person interviewed for this story.
For her part, McVay has every intention of helping that happen.
“I’ve done all that work, why would I stop now?” she said.
As to what she got out of the experience, McVay said it was a lesson in perseverance.
“I was determined, I wasn’t going to let them tell me, ‘no.’ If you stick with something, it can happen. It will happen,” she said.
What happened, in this case, is McVay created the space that gave rise to the Salem area’s first unified Special Olympics team.
More than that, she knows something about what it takes to change the world and, most importantly, that it can be done.