Surrounded by his wife, relatives and a close family friend, Bob Mercola watches as his son’s team takes the basketball court to begin warm-ups. His excitement for the game to begin is almost palpable.
It’s a feeling many other parents sitting in his same section of the bleachers share who have sons or daughters just like Jimmy Mercola.
“See, I’m a sports nut. I love all sports. And when we learned we were having a boy, I naturally dreamt of playing sports with him -- shooting hoops,” Bob Mercola said. “It obviously didn’t work out that way with Jimmy, but we have this every year. This is really our one chance.”
On March 8, Glenbrook North held its annual Teaching for Like Skills basketball game against Glenbrook South. The rivalry game is held once a year and offers students with cognitive or physical disabilities the rare opportunity to participate in a sport.
Baskets were set at different heights based on a student's ability, adaptations were taped onto wheelchairs to help with passing or shooting and peer mentors worked closely to provide support or direction when necessary.
Beyond the modifications on the court, though, the Mercola family shared a particular appreciation for all the elements that went unchanged. The cheerleaders, the Pep Band, the roaring applause from spectators – it all contributed to this bigger picture that, for one day, their son was seen as no different than his peers.
He was an athlete.
“Everyone really cheers each other on. It is so moving to see the regular education students rally around our kids,” said Julie Mercola. “This game really shows the level of acceptance and compassion that exists amongst students at GBN.”
TLS is designed to help students with cognitive and physical disabilities learn how to function more independently as adults by focusing on five key areas: community, domestic, recreation and leisure, vocational and functional academics.
The first TLS basketball game was held at GBN in 1991 and quickly grew into a highlight event.
"The TLS basketball game gives the students a chance to improve their athletic skills, work as a team with their peer mentors and hopefully experience the excitement of a victory," said Kim Fisher, who teaches the TLS program at GBN and co-founded the basketball team.
It also brings the school together in a different way than other events, said Ginna Pugh, whose son Bill is a junior in the TLS program.
Understandably, Ginna Pugh had some initial nervousness about her son participating in the game. She wanted him to be supported by his peers – not put on display.
Quickly, though, she learned the compassion of the GBN community runs deep.
“I had tears in my eyes when the game started,” she recalled of Bill’s first game. “It was really moving to see the kids come through the curtain with the cheerleaders and everyone cheering in support. In the end, it’s not really about basketball. It is a great event that brings the school together. There are kids in the building who may not know our kids, and now they do.”