How Being Part of the SHADE Program Has Shaped My High School Years

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|  by Heather Colley  |

As a junior midway through the third quarter of my third year in high school, I can reflect on the time I’ve spent in high school in terms of “Before” and “After.”  Before, I had been a part of many community service programs, most of them channeling my love for animals, and my inherent desire to do all that I could for them.  But these projects were just that: Projects.  Before, I had no real sense of self, of my belonging in the world, or the impact I had in it.  I enjoyed my time training future guide dogs for the blind and walking angry, abandoned dogs that were in desperate need of affection at the ASPCA.  I understood the goodness in my actions, and my motives were other than the ones set by my high school regulations necessary for graduation.  But then my sophomore year hit.  My sophomore year rolled along and with it came an announcement one October afternoon that caught my attention enough for me to pursue it.

“Sign up for an interview to become a SHADE intern by Friday outside Mrs. K’s classroom.”

Sixteen words.  Sixteen words that at the time seemed inconsequential, a whim I could follow and see where it took me, a pathway not yet explored.  Yet there is a very specific reason these sixteen words still stick out so clearly in my mind.   

Here begins the After.

SHADE.  I had heard the term around school, had a mild understanding of the acronym. (Sleepy Hollow)  Academy For Disabled Education.  October passed by in a whirlwind of involvement, and I witnessed a level of intensity, enthusiasm, and utter hope placed within the inner workings of SHADE that I had never experienced before with any organization.  My After begins with my acceptance, after my nerve wracking interview, to be a part of the SHADE program.  More specifically, my position was that of the other 11 candidates chosen to make up the group we formed together: The Pioneer Team Interns.  Our position was geared towards athletes, the ones who would be unavailable after school, but could then channel their athleticism elsewhere, at a different time, to people that needed and appreciated our presence and encouragement more than our coaches or teammates ever would.

Starting from that very first day, 7:45AM, in the high school gym, my revelations about the Pioneer Team hit me like waves on a seashore.  The athletes, all special needs students with varying levels of ability, were students in Mrs. K’s class, our special education teacher.  Some athletes were more able than others, and some were much older, while a few were complete newbies to the whole experience, just like I was.  It was in this that I began to truly understand the microscopic difference between Mrs. K’s students and the students in my classes; I was just as nervous, if not more, than the Pioneer Team athletes on that very first day.

The students’ disabilities range from minor to more severe, some having slight learning disabilities, while others have physical and mental disabilities.  And yet, every single person on the team, including the interns or buddies, which is what I was, was no different from the next.  Felix, an outstanding athlete on the team who scores goal after goal, strikingly fast and agile, had to show me the proper way to kick a soccer ball.  I began to realize during my time with the Pioneer Team: We were considered the helpers, but who was really helping whom more?

As the weeks progressed and I fell into a pattern of meeting with the Pioneer Team for practices every morning, we struck up a closeness that surpassed even that of my Varsity Field Hockey team, which had up until this point been the highest level of camaraderie and teamwork that I had experienced.  I couldn’t walk through a hallway to class without being stopped for a high five or fist bump by a member of the Pioneer Team.  My new friend, Renelca, an athlete, greeted me with a hug every time I saw her after I helped her score a goal in floor hockey, while she in turn showed me the proper way to shoot a basketball.

Our practices were beginning to amount to progress, and a lot of it.  The team was growing in strength, ability, and recognition.  Every time I walked or talked with one of my new friends on the Pioneer Team, one of my friends from my classes in school would introduce themselves.  My friends became their friends, and so it was for each of the twelve interns, and each of the twenty athletes.  If I were to draw it out on a chart for you, it would start off with two dots.  One would represent us interns, and the other the Pioneer League athletes.  The dots would be connected by one line.  Each dot would then be connected to another line, which would criss cross to connect to the opposite dot’s, until the entire graph would show a hundred dots, all with black lines interlocking each other, intertwining between social groups, classes, and grades.  The social structure of high school was deteriorating before my eyes.  We were no longer considered interns or athletes at Pioneer League.  We were all athletes, working hard to get better.  Renelca was no longer Mrs. K’s student and I was no longer a part of the masses.  We were all students, one student body.

Our first game rolled around and I had volunteered to keep the scoreboard.  It was soccer season, and Felix was expected to score a hat trick.  The athletes were excited, as were the interns, who were there for encouragement and moral support.  The stands, however, were empty, apart from a few parents, and the dejected look that came across the athletes’ faces upon this realization was hard to stomach.  Renelca was especially down on this specific day.

“Renelca, what’s wrong? Aren’t you excited to play?” I sat down next to her against the wall in the few minutes before the game was to begin and tried to smile despite the gloomy emptiness of the gymnasium.
“Yes.  But I don’t think I will score, and I don’t think my parents are going to come.”

Whenever my own parents couldn’t make it to my field hockey games, I grew just as apathetic as Renelca did on this day.  You lose motivation to play, and to shine.  They are the ones you want to make the most proud.  I connected with Renelca on this day more than I had connected with one of my own classmates in a long time.

The game was beginning, the away team had arrived.  We were at an obvious advantage; many students on the opposing team were in wheelchairs, being assisted by coaches.  This would have mattered, if anyone cared about the score, which they didn’t because I had been instructed to keep the scoreboard at 0-0, and to just keep track of the time and quarters.  That was the type of organization this is; everyone won, just by being there.  Five minutes in, Felix scored a goal.  I noticed that the coaches and members of the away team cheered just as loudly as we did.  This never happened at my field hockey games.

Ten minutes in, I heard a bang come from the opposite side of the gym, a bang I could only recognize after a few years participating in fall sports as surly football players smashing through a doorway.  I looked up quizzically; no one was expected to come and watch the Pioneer Team play.

And yet there they were.  Muddy from practice, covered in sweat, still in their practice jerseys, all 55 of the Horsemen stomped in, making a louder ruckus than people did at their own games.  Following them, came both boys and girls varsity soccer teams, all telling me as they walked by that they had gotten special permission from their coaches to leave practice early.   As each student athlete walked by me at the scoreboard table, they gave me a high five, and then went down the line of benched Pioneer League players, shouting encouragements, patting them on the back.

“Make us proud!”
“Let’s see some goals, Pioneer!”

And then the football cheerleaders walked in, toting pom poms, clad in uniforms, and they assumed formation, as I had seen them do so many times at varsity football games.  Our gymnasium was full.   It was no longer a game; it was an event to extraordinary levels.  The cheers that arose every time either of the teams scored were tremendous, and the grins on each athlete’s face were so bright they could’ve lit a night sky.

Renelca went into the game.  Felix scored again.  We were up; I was keeping almost subconscious track in my head.  As Renelca went in, so did a little girl from the opposing team who had been sitting for the entirety of it thus far.  She was the smallest athlete there, and very disabled.  She was unable to sit up by herself in her wheelchair, and needed three supporters walking with her.  But into the game she went.
Felix was the star of our team.  He could’ve had his hat trick, as the fans in the crowd supported him and screamed his name.  But the mood on the court changed when the little girl went into the game; people remembered why we were here.  The game halted for a few short seconds while Felix slowed from a sprint, and gestured towards Renelca to come with him, and help him out.  He trooped towards his own goal, which his friend and our excellent goalie were blocking expertly.  Holding up a finger to the ref, he motioned our goalie, Johnny, away from the goal.  The coaches and helpers supporting the little girl got the unspoken message, and slowly started wheeling her towards our goal.  I watched Renelca pick up the soccer ball, which was supposed to still be in play, and place it in the little girl’s hands.  If the girl had been able, I know she would have thanked Renelca countless times.
As she was wheeled towards our goal, the silence was deafening.  I’ve never heard a crowd of so many people be so still.  And then the girl was faced with an empty  goal, and a helper assisted in lifting her arm, while the lobbed the ball right in.  I’ve never heard such loud cheering in my life.  The cheerleaders began a name personal cheer, Sarah, just for her.  As she was escorted off the court, her hands were clapping to the beat, and she was grinning from ear to ear.  We had to have Mrs. K and a few other teachers silence the crowd enough to resume play after that.

Renelca scored her goal a few minutes later but she knew, as did I, that she had done something much more important that day.  The students  did too, as did every supporter.  After the game, on my way out, I spotted Renelca and went up to wish her goodbye, and to tell her she had had a great game.  She was in the middle of a bear hug, though, of someone I later learned was her dad.  They had come, and they had seen both her goal and her huge act of kindness.

By the time June rolled around I was proud to say I had undergone a transformation from the person I had been at the beginning of the year, before my involvement with the Academy for Disabled Education.  I had begun my After, and now I can look back at my year with the Pioneer League as far more than community service.  It was a life-altering year.  My school merged from separate entities to a whole, collective unit.  I watched it happen every single day, and I watch it happen now, as the new twelve Pioneer League interns are a bridge between “them” and “us”.  I don’t see students in Mrs. K’s class differently than I see students in my math and English classes anymore.  I realized that they share my problems, my worries, my insecurities, my qualms, and my stresses.  To view them as inferior would be not only terrible but also completely incorrect.  Disabled does not mean lesser than. 

The students in Mrs. K’s class are as deserving of a bright high school experience and future as every other student in my school.  These thoughts came to me with continuity every day during my time with the Pioneer League.  I had been chosen to help the athletes, but they had done far more for me, more than they know.  They taught me that the true differences don’t lay in your ability to type a great essay, or the way your face looks, or how tall you are, or how many touchdowns you scored last football season.  The differences lie in what makes you joyful, what makes you sad, what makes your parents proud to call you their’s. 

I’ve learned that your place in the world can seem tiny for a while, until you begin to do things that aren’t at all for yourself.  And then you realize that away from your own worries, there’s a whole world of people out there who are just like you, who are great to talk to and laugh with.  Unfortunately these people are so rarely given the chance, because they’re prematurely judged for being disabled.  I’ve never felt quite the same bond with a group of people, and it’s in this that I realized during my sophomore year that the word “disability” is misleading.  It immediately depicts some kind of either physical or mental hindrance, someone unable to walk or write or play cards.  But what about somebody who can’t feel empathy, or love? What about people, and there are many of them, who can’t stand to see their own friends happy?  These are the people to be worried about, and I have met far more of them throughout my years in high school going about my usual school day than I did during my time with the Pioneer League.   The athletes in the Pioneer League may be deemed disabled.  But they have heart.  They have the ability to shine in the face of struggle.  Every entrance is not built with a ramp.  And yet I’ve met people who can walk up stairs perfectly, people who are so strong that they pick on the weak, people who’s harshness is so eminent that you can see it all over their faces. None of these people are in the Academy for Disabled Education.

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