Students in Vale High’s special education program prepare for their appearance in Support the Court. Varsity player Alvaro Diaz, third from right, has helped coach the students, many of whom have never played basketball before. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – It’s a Wednesday morning at Vale High School and the sound of basketballs and a squeaking floor is coming from the school’s gym.

Just like they’ve been doing every school day for weeks, students in Vale’s special education program practiced their jump shots and dribbles ahead of the Support the Court event scheduled for Monday, March 16.

In its second year, the event brings together differently-abled students from Vale, Ontario and Nyssa for a night of basketball. This year’s event will be hosted at Vale Middle School at 505 Viking Drive, behind Vale High, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Some of the students who participate have never touched a basketball before or played sports, said Nancy Menges, the event’s founder.

“They get to see what it’s like to be part of the team and play in front of a crowd at the gym,” Menges said.

An assistant coach on the Ontario girls’ varsity basketball team, Menges dreamed up Support the Court after attending similar events in Seattle with her son Michael, who has Down syndrome.

Last year’s Support the Court packed the gym. Menges said more than 800 people came out to encourage the athletes.

Admission is free, but organizers encourage people to bring a canned goods donation. Sponsorships pay for the event and the money raised goes toward the players.

About 28 students will participate this year. Nyssa and Ontario students will play together against Vale.

Vale High School students Abe Juarez, left, and David Dean at a basketball practice ahead of Support the Court Monday, March 16. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

The event gives differently-abled students a new experience, said Lisa Andersen, special education teacher at Vale High School.

“The majority of kids who participate would never play a regular sport,” Andersen said.

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Sophomore Ben Raven is one of Andersen’s students. Asked if he likes sports, Raven bluntly said no. But he participated last year and he’s returning this year.

“I like helping people,” Raven said. “I do it for the joy of the other people.”

On his team, one player is visually impaired, but his teammates have helped guide him on the court and he regularly scores.

The Vale players have spent weeks practicing with Alvaro Diaz. A varsity basketball player, Diaz chose to focus his senior project on helping coach Andersen’s students for their Support the Court appearance.

During their daily practice, Diaz goes to each player and models a move for them, giving pointers on how to score.

Andersen said the experience has encouraged her students to get out of their comfort zone. Some of her students with autism are naturally hesitant to be around large crowds and loud noises.

“It teaches them that there are lots of challenges in life you can face, but with a little bit of practice you can be successful,” she said.

But Support the Court hasn’t just given differently-abled students a boost. The event has proven to be a positive experience for all students.

“The excitement of the rest of the student body was impressive,” said Dan Fritts, special education aide at Vale.

Students who play on the school’s regular season basketball team help on the court during the event.

Menges said she’s been touched by the support. The student body at the three high schools has been so involved that Menges said the event is fully staffed with volunteers. Community members who wish to help can do so by simply coming out to the game that night.

The game will go on for eight-minute quarters, Menges explained. During intervals, cheerleaders from Ontario and Vale will perform. There will also be some time during the second half devoted to younger differently-abled students who wish to shoot some hoops on the court.

Between the third and fourth quarter Menges said they will hold a “miracle minute” where volunteers collect donations while a minute runs down on the clock. Last year’s miracle minute collected more than $600 that went toward the schools’ transition programs. The programs help differently-abled students learn to live independently after high school.

“I would have never dreamed how much it would touch me to hear the stories and see the generosity of the sponsors, and the excitement of the student athletes,” Menges said. “It’s overwhelming at times.”

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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