Brashinger: LWSRA changes teen’s outlook on life, future
By Ginger Brashinger Citizen Journalistfirstname.lastname@example.org March 7, 2013 11:10AM
Keith Wallace (from left), Carol Hillman, Justin Hillman, John Hillman and Pete Mangelsdorf. | Supplied photo
Updated: April 11, 2013 6:12AM
Justin Hillman, 17, of New Lenox, is a success story in the making.
Three years ago, however, the Lincoln-Way West High School senior was feeling discouraged.
As a freshman, Justin was placed in special-education classes due to physical disabilities resulting from cerebral palsy.
He walks with an unsteady gait and has difficulty speaking, but his intellectual abilities are normal, Carol and John Hillman, Justin’s parents, said. A conversation with Justin validates that.
His family expected Justin to be placed in special-education classes in high school, as he had been in elementary school, but they weren’t prepared for an educational step backward.
Carol said Justin made great progress in his junior high special-education classes, “skyrocketing in math and reading skills” after several years of educational gaps as a result of illness. But his high school placement put him in classes of basic reading, math, and science that did not challenge him.
“We didn’t push (for appropriate classes) freshman year as much as we should have,” Carol said. “Freshman year was a wash.”
So Justin will take a fifth year of high school before going on to college.
“I wouldn’t want to see what happened to me freshman year happen to anyone else,” he said.
Still, Justin is a happy young man.
He’s taking advanced algebra and trigonometry this year and has signed up for forensics, history of religion and English IV classes for next school year.
He has a large group of friends and belongs to a winning basketball team, situations that seemed impossible four years ago.
Justin said the changes came in large part because Keith Wallace, superintendent of recreation at Lincolnway Special Recreation Association, “found” him.
Wallace said he “always has an eye out” for kids who are a good fit for LWSRA programs, specializing in activity placement to help them reach their full potential. Justin wasn’t doing that, he said.
When he noticed that Justin was participating in Special Olympics, an organized sports program developed for those with developmental disabilities but that includes those with only physical disabilities, Wallace approached the family.
“The Special Olympics can be a warm-fuzzy for someone, but they may be taking the opportunity away from someone who deserves to go,” he said.
Wallace told the Hillmans that the opportunity existed for Justin to participate in wheelchair sports and play sports and socialize with kids at his level of abilities. But Justin and his parents balked at the thought of putting him into a wheelchair.
“We fought to keep him ambulatory. We viewed the wheelchair as a step back,” Carol said.
Justin agreed, unable to see the safety or socialization benefits of wheelchair sports. He could see only the wheelchair.
Wallace persisted, inviting the family to watch the “Rolling Falcons” special-needs basketball team at practice. Justin said although he was more inclined to join after watching, it was an experience at a social outing that drew him to wheelchair sports.
“I remember the first time I went to a (social event), and I just fell in love with it because everybody treated me like a normal person,” he said. “I think that was the first time I felt like I belonged. ... Thank God I found this group. I found my home. Before this group I had no friends.”
In the short term, Justin’s plans are to compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association tournament as part of the JV Rolling Falcons team, the Midwest Conference champions.
Future plans include attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and eventually becoming a Catholic priest, a goal he has had for many years.
Justin said he wouldn’t foresee such a future without the people at LWSRA, such as Wallace and Pete Mangelsdorf, Justin’s coach.
He urges other young people with disabilities to take a look at LWSRA, and he has a message for them.
“You’re going to grow up and you’re going to be alone,” he said. “You don’t have to. Come here.”
For information on LWSRA, go to www.lwsra.org.