About a dozen athletes with special needs received their varsity letters at Wichita’s East High School on Thursday, ending a campaign that drew national attention to the issue of equity for students with cognitive disabilities.
Jason Crippen and Katie Thackery, East High teachers, awarded the letters during a lunchtime ceremony at the school.
“I love working with you guys. You do really well, and I’m really proud of you,” said Crippen, who coaches soccer and basketball teams that compete in the Tri-County Athletic League, a league for students with special needs.
“This letter says ‘East High’ on it, because that is who you are.”
The Wichita school board last month approved new guidelines that direct schools to award regular varsity letters to students who participate on special-needs sports teams. In the past, East High has awarded different letters for different activities, such as fine arts or club sports; only athletes who competed as part of the Greater Wichita Athletic League received the school’s athletic letter.
Jolinda Kelley, a Wichita mother who launched the campaign, sat alongside her son, Michael Kelley, at Thursday’s ceremony in the East High library. She smiled when Michael’s name was called and snapped cellphone pictures as he received his letter.
“It’s a good day,” she said later. “I’m just so happy for all the kids here today, but especially the seniors.”
Like many end-of-season athletic banquets, the Tri-County League ceremony included stories of notable performances throughout the year in soccer, basketball and cheerleading.
When Crippen recounted Bruce Wylie’s game-winning shot in the league championship soccer match that gave East the league title, the room exploded with cheers of “Bruuuuuuuce!”
“You guys, it was so awesome. I flipped out,” Crippen said, smiling. “I still do whenever I think about it.”
With each presentation, Crippen complimented the athletes’ hustle, fortitude, spirit or skill. Calling sophomore Trevente Dean to the front to accept his basketball awards, Crippen said, “This guy is so nice, he’d try to pass the ball to the other team. … So we need to work on that.”
When senior Charles Christenbury received his Most Valuable Player award, he turned to his teammates and said, “I love you all. Thank you very much.”
Martin Brooks, 19, said he was happy to receive his letter. He also appreciated the piece of cake and new Oklahoma City Thunder T-shirt. The NBA team sent a box of shirts to the school as a gift for the Tri-County League athletes.
“It was pretty awesome,” Brooks said. “I like basketball and I like soccer. … I kick the ball, and I make friends.”
To be considered for a letter, students on Tri-County teams must participate for two seasons, participate in at least 70 percent of practices and games, demonstrate good sportsmanship, give consistent effort, exhibit respect and finish the season in good standing academically.
“I think it’s a wonderful deal for these kids,” said Randall Woolery, whose 18-year-old son, Brandon, played soccer and basketball for East’s Tri-County team.
“I’m glad they went ahead and passed that deal where they get the letter, too, because these kids have done everything they could,” Woolery said. “When you see the expression on these kids’ faces, that’s just great.”