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Let it roll: Kids learn lesson via wheelchair basketball

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Mike Heine
November 17, 2007
— When Elkhorn Area Middle School eighth-grader Hannah Harkness heard that the UW-Whitewater wheelchair basketball team was coming to her school, she was more excited than most of her classmates.

Not because she’s a big-time basketball fan or because she knows somebody on the team.


Harkness was going to get a chance to do something she wouldn’t normally do. She was going to play basketball.


“I was really happy that I could play because I might not have been able to play like this unless they came,” said Harkess, a 13-year-old who has used a wheelchair since before she was 2 because of her spina bifida.


Besides getting the chance to play with a team, Harkness was also happy her classmates got the chance to see that other people with disabilities can do the things able-bodied people do all the time.


“I’m just used to being in a wheelchair. I can do pretty much anything other people can do,” she said. “I just do it in a different way that works for me.”


Getting used to the chairs was more difficult for 30 kids and 10 teachers who went up against three members of the repeat champion Warhawks team.


“It was really hard to go as fast as they were going,” said seventh-grader Brad Killen, who took a turn in a chair. “Their arms have to be really strong.”


And shooting?


“It was harder than you think. When you can’t jump, you don’t get enough power,” Killen said.


That’s the basketball perspective. The team came for more reasons than just putting on a show.


The team wants to reach out to kids and help them understand there’s no reason to be scared of or intimidated by people in wheelchairs, said Joe Chambers, a sophomore team member.


“We’re hoping to use sport to show people the abilities of people with disabilities,” said coach Tracy Chynoweth. “We want to break down the barriers that society has.”


Members of the team travel to about 50 schools around Wisconsin, northern Illinois and eastern Minnesota every year as part of its Cornerstones for Success program, Chynoweth said.


“People see kids in wheelchairs and they immediately get a sympathetic feeling,” said Chynoweth, who is not disabled but plays with the team for fun. “Don’t have those feelings because it’s not a big deal. We operate with a mentality that when one door closes, another door opens.”


The event has opened the door to Harkness and her best friend, Amanda Amon, a seventh-grader who had her left leg amputated a few years ago.


“I’m looking forward to finding wheelchair basketball camps and other activities that I can do,” Harkness said.


“(Chynoweth) talked to me about a Milwaukee team for wheelchair basketball,” said Amon, who walks with a prosthetic leg. “I’m going to look into it. It sounded like a lot of fun, and it was fun playing.”


It opened the eyes of some able-bodied students, too.


“It kinda scared me to see them play.


“When I was 8, my grandpa was in a wheelchair,” said seventh-grader Kayla French. “It was kind of hard seeing that again.


“But when I saw them wheeling around and having fun, I thought it might not be so bad.”



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