Their shirts bore the words “Game Changer,” and that’s what the 10th grade students of Rivers set out to do last Sunday: Change the game for the 20 Massachusetts Special Olympics basketball teams visiting campus to compete in the state qualifying tournament.
Rivers was one of several venues hosting the tournament; some 20 teams, whose members have intellectual disabilities, were scheduled to fight it out on the courts in Benson and Haffenreffer Gyms during the all-day event.
Rivers sophomores have been involved in the event for many years, says director of service learning Kit Cunningham, who oversaw the tourney. The entire grade participates, she explains. “They serve as officials, announcers, scorekeepers, team liaisons. Sometimes there’s some down time, and if there is, what they do is cheer. There’s lots of energy down on the court, cheering for the players. They’re really hosts representing Rivers.”
Students were enthusiastic about taking on the event, even if it meant giving up a lazy Sunday. “Your friends are here – it’s fun,” said Maddie Wambach ’21. At a table set up outside the gym, she and a group of several classmates were making colorful valentines for veterans, one of the day’s non-basketball activities. Earlier, they’d played cornhole with members of the Special Olympics teams. Some Rivers students helped prepare and serve lunch to the guests; others handed out medals and traded high-fives at the awards ceremonies. Students were also actively involved on the court, as announcers, officials, and scorekeepers.
“When I first heard about the Special Olympics event, I was excited,” says Kendall Diamond ’21, who served as one of the student leaders for the day. “As we began our leadership meetings, the excitement increased, and I couldn’t wait to participate in volunteering.”
She had an idea of how the day would play out, she says, but the actual experience exceeded her expectations. “From the moment I walked into the gym, the smiles on the athletes’ faces and passion for the game were inspiring. Throughout the day I made so many friends and connected with many people. Nothing compares with the adrenaline my classmates and I felt as we cheered on these athletes. I had done work with people with special needs before, but this was by far the most rewarding experience. I loved seeing our grade come together and have such a fun day.”
Cunningham says the Rivers students reap multiple benefits from the event. “They see the running of a big event, and they have a real purpose and role in it being successful,” she says. Moreover, she notes, “They’re also in a situation of interacting with people with special needs, and many of them have not been in that situation before. But it gets them past the hurdle of nervousness and discomfort they may have, and I’ve never had a kid who didn’t say, ‘That was so much fun.’ ”
Gregg Dennison ’21, another student leader, said, “Hanging out with the athletes and getting to know them was really awesome.” He says he even made a new friend among the participants, with whom he hoped to stay in touch.
Dennison continued, “I had never done much volunteer work with people with special needs, so I was a little nervous going into the day. But once I got there I felt comfortable with the participants. They were so happy and excited. It felt as if their positive energy was transferred throughout our whole grade. It was awesome to see everyone come out and help the athletes just have fun doing something they love.”
Cunningham adds that Rivers students have a strong track record of volunteering for sports programs for the disabled. “There’s an interest among Rivers kids in working with special-needs athletes, and we believe part of that comes from being involved in Special Olympics in 10th grade.” The game-changing, it seems, goes both ways: for the Special Olympics athletes and for the student hosts who cheer them on.