When Holden Smith, a brown-headed and stocky 8-year-old at Sally Curtis Elementary, stepped up to the plate for his turn at the softball toss, the youngster’s autism didn’t hold him back.
With a first place ribbon for the 23-foot toss, Holden was beaming and his father, Michael Smith, was equally proud.
“They’re making a lot of progress,” Smith said of his autistic sons at the third annual Special Relay for special needs children from schools across Beaumont ISD, held Thursday, March 28.
Students ages 5 to 12 could be seen running relay races with bright smiles under the close supervision of coach Mike Sweat. Armed with a whistle and a flashy Adidas track suit, Sweat communicated with each student with patience and clarity.
“When you see my hand come down, you take off a-runnin!” he said to one group perched at the starting line.
The day’s warm sun and cool breeze was perfect for the event held at Ozen High School, said Brenda Sykes, who helped organize the event.
“We just come out and try to have a good time with our kids for the day,” she said. “Relax a little bit from the test-taking and just have a little break.”
Sykes said BISD’s special needs children face a variety of challenges, so a one-size-fits all solution to their needs is difficult to achieve.
“They’re anywhere from intellectually delayed, autistic and health impaired,” she said. “We have some with cerebral palsy, so there’s a wide range of disabilities in our students.”
Eleven-year-old Germaine Richard-Murry is one of those students whose health problems span the gauntlet of special needs. The oldest of five brothers, Germaine suffers from chronic lung disease — prompting doctors to remove part of his lung — cerebral palsy and hyperthyroidism, said his mother Lashonda McNeil. Without BISD’s special needs classes, McNeil said her son could not have been walking and talking today.
“He came a long way,” she said. “He started off in a wheelchair.”
But by 5 years old, McNeil said her son, with his well-manicured dreadlocks and talkative attitude, was much more independent.
“He’s been walking on his own ever since,” she said.
With walking and more independence comes time for the finer things in life, like Germaine’s favorite food.
“Mac and cheese!” Germaine said enthusiastically.
As the smaller, more nimble children finished their relays, the wheelchairs took their turn on the track — darting in and out of cones in a slalom course under the watchful eye of BISD staff.
“It gives them a chance to do something that the other kids can do,” McNeil said “It’s lifting their spirits.”
Autism is also big part of BISD’s work with special needs kids, and with two autistic sons, Smith said he couldn’t put a finger on the single biggest challenge of having autistic children.
“All of it,” he said. “I have two of them, so it’s double. Communication is probably the biggest thing. “Before it was a lot more complicated, but it’s gotten a lot better in the last few years.”
Both Smith and McNeil said BISD has done great things for the special needs community.
“I don’t think they get enough credit for the things they do with some of these kids,” McNeil said.
Clay Thorp can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at clay [at] theexaminer [dot] com.