January 29, 2010

2010 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

A meaningful victory: CYO group uses basketball to help youths with disabilities

Members of the CYO high school basketball team from Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis pose with the team from Damar Services Inc. after their game on Jan. 4. The Good Shepherd team served as mentors this season for the Damar team, which played in the CYO high school league for the first time this year. (Submitted photo)

Members of the CYO high school basketball team from Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis pose with the team from Damar Services Inc. after their game on Jan. 4. The Good Shepherd team served as mentors this season for the Damar team, which played in the CYO high school league for the first time this year. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

During 36 years of working for the Catholic Youth Organization, Bernadette Price has always appreciated those moments of sportsmanship when young players show they know there is something more important than the numbers on a scoreboard.

Another one of those splendid moments came into focus for Price as she snapped picture after picture during a CYO high school boys’ basketball game on Jan. 4 between a team from Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis and a squad from Damar Services Inc., a program that strives to enable people with developmental disabilities to lead successful lives.

The Damar team was playing in its first year in the CYO league, at the invitation of the CYO’s executive director, Edward Tinder.

As a teenager from the Damar team stood at the foul line waiting to take a free throw, a player from the Good Shepherd team walked up to him, patted him on the back and offered sincere words of encouragement, telling the Damar player, “Hey, you can do this. Just take your time.”

It was a moment to savor for Price, who also serves as a moderator of the youth group at Good Shepherd Parish.

“The encouragement they gave during that game was amazing,” Price recalls. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what the score was. No one really paid attention to the score.”

A lasting connection

That small moment reflects the great connection that has existed between the youth group at Good Shepherd Parish and the young people at Damar Services Inc. since the mid-1970s. For nearly 35 years, youths from Good Shepherd Parish have coordinated dances, hayrides, bingo nights, drama classes, Christmas parties and other activities for the Damar youths.

“The Good Shepherd-CYO group has been the longest group to volunteer here,” says Donna Stutler, the volunteer resources director for Damar Services. “When I tell our kids that the CYO group is coming, they always view it as a positive. To them, it means, ‘Kids are coming and we’re going to do a fun activity.’

“It’s good for them to have that interaction with the CYO kids. Research shows that for children in treatment, their length of stay is shortened when they’re around positive social peers.”

So when Tinder extended the offer to have a boys’ basketball team from Damar play in the CYO league, the Damar staff viewed it as another winning situation for the youths who are developmentally disabled and behaviorally challenged.

Their involvement was enhanced when the Good Shepherd teams offered to serve as mentors for the Damar team.

“One of the biggest impacts for our kids has been being around positive social peers,” says Jim Porter, the recreation director for Damar. “The other thing for our kids is that they are competitive, and they wanted to play against other talented teams. This really gives them a lot of confidence and makes them feel good about what they are doing.”

That confidence developed from the first time the Damar players stepped onto the court.

“For a lot of the first half of our first game, our guys were ahead,” Porter notes. “That set the tone to make our guys feel they belonged. They had some anxiety about this because they viewed this as a real basketball league. For them to feel they belonged was just great.”

Meaningful victories

The Damar team eventually lost that first game. They didn’t get a win during the rest of the season either, at least not on the scoreboard, but Porter said more meaningful victories were gained.

“We definitely saw improvement on the sportsmanship side for our guys,” Porter says. “They see good sportsmanship being modeled on the other teams and they model it themselves. For us to go up at the end of the game, shake hands with the other team and say, ‘Good game,’ that’s a good thing for our kids. They feel like they’ve competed. They feel like they’ve given a good effort, and they feel good about themselves.”

The youths at Good Shepherd Parish feel the same way. Alex Schoettle has helped at Damar for more than four years. He plays on a high school basketball team at Good Shepherd Parish, and he and his teammates have served as mentors to the youths on the Damar team.

“Their games were either before or after ours,” says Schoettle, a senior at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “We’d come early or stay late to watch them. We cheered them on and talked to them after the game.”

They continued that approach even during the Jan. 4 game when the two teams played each other.

“They were competitive,” Schoettle says. “They were in the game with us. Afterwards, we talked to them and took a couple pictures with them. We talked about basketball and how school is going—the normal things any high school kids talk about. It’s been rewarding watching them play.”

The connection continues off the basketball court, too.

“Damar has shaped who I’ve become through high school,” says Brooke Propes, a member of Good Shepherd Parish and a senior at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “We go there a lot, and we get to know the kids. They have so many challenges, and yet they’re usually smiling. The children there make me realize how lucky I am. It’s changed my relationship with God and others. It’s made me think about what I might want to do later in my life—maybe work with people who have disabilities. I love Damar.”

It’s all part of the difference that volunteering can make in the lives of young people, Price says.

It also shows just how special teenagers are today, she adds.

“I am amazed at how busy kids are today and how competitive things in our world can be,” Price says. “Here are two groups of kids who are from different worlds, but it doesn’t matter. They care about each other. They all mix and mingle together. It shows the youth of today are definitely headed in the right direction.” †

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