Monday, September 28, 2009

Autistic Runner an Inspiration to His Team

Last week we had a post and video about Matt Ziesel, a high school football player from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Matt has Down Syndrome and the story and video about him were very inspiring because they demonstrated the love and acceptance for Matt in his community.

The Ziesel family are parishioners at St. Francis Xavier Parish in St. Joseph and they've been getting lot's of calls from media, as their video has gone viral with more than half a million views in less than two weeks. ESPN will be in St. Joseph to put together a story on Matt this week and CNN will be doing a segment as well.
Just this weekend, another inspiring story of a community's acceptance of a disabled youth was written up in the Examiner edition for Independence, excerpt:

Independence, MO — The two solitary figures strode side by side, past the tennis courts and junior varsity football field located just east of Fort Osage High School, and headed for the home stretch.

As parents, fans and fellow runners saw them in the distance they lined the cross country course and began to applaud.

The applause grew louder as St. Mary’s freshman Nathan Hoppman and his running buddy, Oscar Bichara, approached the finish line of the junior varsity race.

Hoppman finished the junior varsity heat of the Independence City Championships 6 minutes and 3 seconds behind the 39th-place runner, bringing an end to the 40-man event.

But in the minds of everyone in attendance, the young man who deals with autism on a daily basis was the biggest winner of the hotly contested race.

“Do you know how many people who don’t have anything wrong with them just sit around and do nothing?” asked freshman junior varsity runner Loki Lowki, a teammate of Hoppman’s. “What Nathan did here today is amazing. What he does every day at practice is amazing. He inspires every one of us. We’re proud to call him our teammate.”

Bichara, a sophomore runner on the varsity squad, makes it a routine to run the junior varsity race with Hoppman before competing in the varsity event.

“The first time I ran with Nathan, I went out and ran a PR (personal record), so Nathan is my good luck charm,” Bichara said, grinning from ear to ear. “He inspires me. He inspires the whole team.”

Hoppman has high function autism, which allows him to attend classes at St. Mary’s and mix with the student body on a daily basis.

“The St. Mary’s student body – especially the runners on the boys and girls cross country teams – have really accepted Nathan,” said Hoppman’s mother, Christa, who is also a runner. “He ran track in the seventh and eighth grade, and when we went to St. Mary’s, we asked if he could be on the cross country team, and he was accepted with open arms.”

Read the whole thing. Last week, when I ran the Ziesel story I commented that I was struck when I moved to Kansas City by the number of Down Syndrome kids here. You don't see hardly any where I'm from in San Francisco.

Last night, we had a block party and a neighbour asked me if there was anything positive about Kansas City that surprised me. While I didn't think about it at the time, I could have said "the way commuties are welcoming of children with disabilities." Certainly there are stories like these elsewhere, but the whole-hearted acceptance of children with disabilities is a part of the culture here in a way that makes it different.

We've written about the F.I.R.E. program in our paper several times, but I haven't introduced it to our blog audience. The Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education is a program that provides grants to Kansas City – St. Joseph diocesan schools allowing them to hire staff for students with special needs. Their mission says:

F.I.R.E is the only organization that provides financial assistance to parish schools for special education services that benefit children with special needs. Doing so, F.I.R.E. helps each child meet his or her highest potential, and enlightens and expands the lives of all children by teaching acceptance, compassion, and the value of every child of God. Our mission is to provide children with special needs the opportunity for an inclusive Catholic education in their home parish schools.

You can read more about them in The Catholic Key here and here. Then why not visit their website and make a donation.