When Blake Estrada, a 16-year-old sophomore at Lapeer Community Schools, told his mother Robin, 38, that he wanted to join the basketball team, she wasn’t sure what to think.
Robin and her husband Richard, 47, feared that Blake, who is on the autism spectrum and was also diagnosed with ADHD, would become overwhelmed by the experience of playing basketball, especially without the help of the one-on-one paraprofessional he was used to being by his side.
“Blake has always struggled with social skills and independence,” Robin, who is also mom to Kaitlyn, 14, tells Babble. “He would never do anything without his para or us doing it for him or being by his side. I [didn’t] know if this was going to work.”
But Stacy Sahr, the special education teacher at the high school, had a plan. Sahr runs the Links program at the school, which pairs students with special needs with general education students for skill-building and socialization. The program allows a Links member to “link” up with a student with special needs for an entire semester, attending classes with them, working on different skills, and helping them navigate the school environment.
Sahr knew that one of Blake’s Links members was playing basketball and that Blake had expressed an interest in playing as well, so with the assistance of freshman basketball coach Jake Weingartz, she came up with a way to help Blake try out for the team. The Links students attended the early practices and tryouts with Blake and he made the team — and blossomed from there.
Robin was amazed at the difference she saw in her son, who had once been afraid of loud noises and swore to never enter a gym because of the commotion.
“The High School level Links program had done wonders for his social skills,” she says. “He loves all of his Links — they make him feel like he is on top of the world. I have watched him seek them out and engage in conversation with them [and] that is not something he would have ever done before. Before the Links he would see people in public and hide.”
And we have evidence that Blake is clearly hiding no more. Last week, after his team members coordinated a play to give Blake the chance to score, even the other team joined to support him. Without any prior knowledge or coaching, the opposing team stood back as Blake shot and missed, shot and missed again, again, and again, until … well, you could probably just watch the video:
Robin tells Babble that although Blake never knows before a game if he will get a chance to play, he is always excited to go and cheer on his team mates. “Sometimes I think he cheered louder and harder than us parents in the stands!” she laughs.
And during this particular game, when Lapeer was ahead by a few points and Blake stepped onto the court with a little under a minute left, the whole gym lit up with his excitement.
Sahr explains that after Coach Weingartz had put Blake in a prior game without a clear plan in place, the play hadn’t gone as hoped. So this time, the team was in on a plan to get Blake a bucket — and they soon sprung into action. With the seconds ticking down, Blake sprinted towards the open basket on the end of the court, wide open and ready for the ball. And when his teammates fed him the ball, they followed up as he shots and missed, quickly rebounding for him, and giving him more chances to score.
But the most stunning part of the video is watching the other team’s reaction. Although they look a bit confused at first, they all hang back and let Blake go for his bucket, cheering loudly when he finally scores.
While the play was planned, the reaction from the other team was not. “It was a true display of sportsmanship” says Sahr. The palpable excitement in that gym is evident, and 100% genuine, as Blake has become a valued member of the team, much to his entire family’s delight.
“Watching not only his team do whatever it took to help him get a basket, but the other team and their family in the stands cheer him on was the most heart-warming moment I have ever experienced,” says Robin. “It brought tears to my eyes. The team knows and loves Blake but to see people who don’t know him actually scream, yell and jump up and down when he finally made the basket was the part that made me cry.”
(Author’s note: It totally made me cry, too.)
And as any parent knows, knowing that your child’s abilities are accepted and supported is priceless.
“My biggest fear when Blake was diagnosed was [that] he was going to be the outcast,” admits Robin. “But I am thankful to say that is not the case. We are extremely blessed to be a part of such a wonderful community.”