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Video: Lakeland and Yorktown Students Are "Pioneers" for Special Olympics

The Pioneer Leagues of Lakeland and Yorktown schools played basketball at a packed gymnasium at Yorktown High School.

and students played a basketball game in front of a packed gymnasium at on Wednesday. The game was part of both school district's special athletic program – the Pioneer League, which is part of the Special Olympics program.

"I see the youth and the improvement of their skills and I can see they have a better feeling of themselves," said John Martin, Lakeland's Pioneer League coach. 

Students in the program throughout the school year. They play four sports – soccer, volleyball, basketball, and floor hockey. Practices and competitions are held weekly from September to May. 

The program at Lakeland was founded during the 1991-91 school year by a grant through Reader's Digest with the entire concept being to have individuals with intellectual disabilities compete in interscolastic sports just as their peers do.

Lakeland students are coached by now-retired physical education teacher, John Martin and his assistant coach Elinor Brown. Yorktown students, who have their own program for the first time this year, are coached by Dennis Daria. 

Hudson Valley is one of several regional offices for Special Olympics New York and there are currently 12 teams, with Yorktown being the latest addition. The Pioneer League is the only program in the state that has a league of this nature, according to Ellen Pikula, director of programs at Special Olympics New York.

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According to the website for Special Olympics New York, which is the largest program of its type in the U.S. serving more than 55,000 athletes with more than 31,000 volunteers, the goal of their events are to give children with intellectual disabilities, "continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of skills and friendship with their families, Special Olympics athletes and the community."

Through their participation in Special Olympics New York athletes gain confidence and build a positive self-image, which carries into the classroom, the home, the workplace and the community. 

"These kids have always had a dream of being a part of a varsity team," Martin said and added that now that dream has been realized because the kids can participate in sports through the program.

"They feel more part of the school," he said, as other students and parents often attend their games and cheer them on. "It's a sense of pride that they are part of the school. They feel accomplished."

If it wasn't for some of the high school volunteers who come out to coach the special needs kids, the program wouldn't be the same. 

"They really bond with the kids and it carries over in school," Martin said, referring to the students who often help out their special needs classmates. "It's great."

Martin, who was a teacher at the Lakeland school district for 32 years, said he wants to make sure that everyone has a chance to play out on the court and participate. Often, the athletes themselves would look after their teammates – and even athletes on the other team. If someone is not making a shot, or has not made one in a while, the kids would step out and give that person a chance. 

"That's what's amazing about them," he said. 

Yorktown coach Dennis Daria said the kids like to shake hands and mingle with each other because at the end of the game, the experience was more important than who won the game.

"Having fun and just participating is the name of the game," said John Leslie, a teacher at Lakeland. "In fact, if you want to see the best example of textbook sportsmanship just show up to a Pioneer game. You'll see players giving up the ball to a teammate for a depth of interaction that the average person might not be able to fathom."

For game highlights and student interviews, check out the video posted with this story.

Members of the Yorktown Pioneer League are: Amanda Diana, Vicki Zupa, Josiah O'Brien, Michael Corrado, Melissa Schlanger, Rosy Cheng, Kayla Morris, Crescent Mascarhenas, Evelyn Saavedra, Samantha Fredericks and Anthony Marasevic.

Members of the Lakeland Pioneer League are: Rene Alvarez, Kelsie Collins, Beth Davis, Katie Del Monaco, Ed Garcia, Allison Griffith, Alyse Mackey, Rox Mackey, James McParatian, Michael Pabon, Chloe Riccion, Eric DuVal, Tyler Rodriguez, Kayla Capello.

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