Without the Glenbrook United Special Olympics program, Glenview resident Maddy Halamaj, 19, might not be able to play competitive sports at all. Halamaj, who has a cognitive learning disability, plays basketball for the team, which includes Glenbrook North and South students with special needs.
“She’s just a huge sports person,” says her stepfather, Roger Simpson. “Just the opportunity to be able to participate in sports puts a smile on her face, and I think most of these kids.”
So it’s just the icing on the cake that Halamaj and her teammates on the Glenbrook United girls basketball squad will be honored on the court at an upcoming Chicago Sky basketball game as “High School Team of the Week.” Halamaj knows all the players' and coaches' names, and is a regular at the games, according to Simpson.
The Chicago Sky named the Glenbrook United girls basketball team as its very first high school team of the week in 2014, citing the three bronze medals the girls have earned at state and the fact that the players help fundraise for the team.
“As far as their athletic ability within the Olympics program, they’re quite phenomenal, but they’re also just phenomenal people,” says Simpson, who nominated Glenbrook United for the award. “I think they’d be great role models for anybody in the community.”
The team began in 2010, and the girls have made their way to the state tournament every year since then, including this year. Money for the team’s uniforms, travel and tournament fees is entirely supported by fundraising, with practice facilities provided by Glenbrook North and South. The girls help raise the money themselves by collecting donations in cans from cars while the weather is nice.
“I find that quite refreshing,” Simpson says. “I know it’s a big part of what the Chicago Sky wanted: to know that the athletes are not just great athletes but they’re great people.”
Glenbrook United coaches Pa’al Joshi and Kim Petty started Special Olympics basketball teams at Glenbrook North and South in 2010, and the program has expanded substantially since then, growing from 20 to 30 boys and girls and adding multiple sports, including volleyball, soccer, track and golf. The girls’ basketball team, in particular, had only five players the first year, and now fields double that number.
“Giving more people opportunities is a big deal to me and a big deal to everyone around here,” says Joshi, who is also a special education teacher for the district.
He and Hersey High School teacher and Special Olympics coach Craig Ameel have also started a team for kids who have graduated, so they can continue to play.
“We get to know young people as long as they want,” he says.
Halamaj, who graduated from high school, is now in a transition program that allows her to be considered a high school student until age 22, according to Roger Simpson. Being able to play competitive sports is an incredible opportunity for her and other students with special needs, he says.
When kids like Halamaj are young, it’s easy for them to join any sports team, because the stakes are lower and kids and parents are less concerned with winning and more with having fun, he explains.
“As kids and coaches and parents get more competitive, there’s a larger gap between their ability to participate and the rest of the world,” he says. “Just the opportunity to participate in sports is huge.”
Beyond that, kids with special needs also reap the same benefits as any kids who play sports, learning self esteem, self respect, confidence and sportsmanship, Simpson says.
“She’s learned a lot of leadership skills and teamwork, and then there’s the social aspect,” he adds. “Being on the team, riding on the bus to games, going downstate—making those kinds of connections and hopefully lasting friendships.”
Beyond winning “High School Team of the Week,” the Glenbrook United squad will also be considered for the “High School Team of the Year,” based on online voting.