When Jacqueline B. Vaughn Occupational High School tipped off its basketball season on Tuesday afternoon, the excitement surrounding the Eagles had very little to do with projected win-loss records. Instead, students were buzzing over the opportunity to play a sport they previously could only watch.
Since 1968, Vaughn has been home to Northwest Side public high school students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities. While the Portage Park school has always had ties to the Illinois Special Olympics program, the interest in athletics has been lacking. Just a little over five years ago, the program could barely assemble one full basketball team.
“We couldn’t even talk kids into playing,” said Rusty Burnette, Vaughn’s principal. “We were like “’C’mon, play basketball.’ We were lucky if we had 10 to 12 kids.”
But things began to turn around in 2007, when Vaughn filled its vacant P.E. teacher position with Melissa Tremblay. Though newly graduated from Michigan State University without any experience in special education, the 27-year-old Tremblay immediately set her sights on improving the school’s dilapidated Special Olympics program.
“When I got here, Special Olympics was very small,” Tremblay said. “There were only about twenty students who did sports. Plus, we only had two sports to choose from – track and basketball.”
Vaughn’s facilities didn’t help the cause. According to Tremblay, the gymnasium had the look and feel of a storage closet. It consisted of a carpeted floor, tattered mats and “bright nasty orange” painted walls.
Furthermore, the jerseys provided to the students would make a homeless person blush.
“My first year we wore these blue rag type things with some numbers slapped on them,” Tremblay said.
The laundry list of problems didn’t end there. Around 90 percent of the school’s students come from low-income families. So getting them the proper medical clearance to participate in athletics proved to be a challenge.
In her first year, only ten students took advantage of “MedFest,” which is an annual Special Olympics event at the United Center sponsored by Advocate Medical Group that provides free physicals for underprivileged athletes. Accredited doctors come from all over Chicago to volunteer their services.
Tremblay aggressively spread the word about the event to her fellow teachers in hopes of increasing Vaughn’s athletic eligibility rates.
Her efforts proved successful.
“Over the years, we’ve brought more and more kids,” Tremblay said. “First it was my class, then my class and another teacher’s class. This year, it was the whole school.”
Out of 250 students enrolled at Vaughn in 2011, roughly 170 attended MedFest in September. Out of those that didn’t attend, 52 had physicals performed prior to the event, and the remaining students’ were simply unable to participate, Tremblay said.
Along with the steady increase in eligible student athletes came dramatic improvements to Vaughn’s recreational facilities. The so-called gymnasium received a sparkling facelift over the course of the last four years. A shiny hardwood floor with a black “VHS” logo was installed, along with two brand-new basketball hoops. The putrid orange walls were covered up with solid red paint, and the worn-out mats were replaced with sturdy blue ones.
In 2010, Vaughn also received a $5,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, who annually sponsors a Special Olympics program.
“It was awesome,” Tremblay said. “We not only bought new uniforms, but warm-ups too – pants and jackets.”
Some of the leftover money went towards the purchase of an XBOX Kinect, which the students now use to train for track and field during the cold winter months.
While other Chicago Public Schools continue to cut back on their athletic programs, Burnette believes the money he’s budgeted towards Tremblay and the Special Olympics program has been well worth it.
“It makes our students more well-rounded,” Burnette said. “The level of motivation across the school is much higher.”
Besides improving the facilities, Burnette has worked with Tremblay to increase the number of sports available for the students at Vaughn.
In 2010, soccer and softball were added to the program. They were such a success, that soccer increased its number of teams from three to four in 2011. Tremblay plans to expand the softball program from three to five teams next spring.
However, some students at Vaughn want even more opportunities.
“I would love to play football,” said Edwin Rosario, 16. “If they had a football team, I would be on the Bears already.”
Other students like Julio Ortiz, 19, are just grateful for the chance to be involved in athletics.
“It’s my first year trying to play basketball,” Ortiz said. “But I love it – it’s my favorite sport.”
Despite the enormous strides Vaughn has taken over the last five years, Burnette said he isn’t standing pat. The school built an addition that will be used to teach students important daily living skills such as exercise routines.
He also said he hopes to continue growing the Special Olympics program.
“It’s not just about for now,” Burnette said. “It’s about forever. That’s why sports are so important.”