Raising awareness one swoosh at a time

By on November 23, 2015
Erica Thomas-Schulenburg prepares to catch a ball. Photo: Julia Lovett

Erica Thomas-Schulenburg prepares to catch a ball.
Photo: Julia Lovett

FORT ST. JOHN – A young girl with a basketball is levelling the playing field on and off the court.

Erica Thomas-Schulenburg, a 14-year-old Bert Bowes Middle  School student is teaching not only her school-mates a little something about compassion but her community as well.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, she, along with her mother, Olga, joined about 14 others at the Bert Bowes gym in a friendly basketball game. This game, however, had one catch. Each player had to be strapped into a wheelchair. Yes, this was a game of wheelchair basketball to coincide with National Sports Day. The event, put on by Pacific Sport and Kids Sport held from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and brought out different members of the community to learn a little bit about the game.

Thomas-Schulenburg, who was one of the coaches for the day, is a provincial winter games athlete. She also has Cerebral Palsy.

“We’re trying to raise awareness for wheelchair basketball. It’s a sport we’d really like to see get going in Fort St. John,” said Olga Schulenburg.

She explained the reason they would like to see wheelchair sports grow in the community is to ensure a more inclusive atmosphere.

During the event, the mother and daughter team taught the participants drills and showed them how to use the chairs in a way that would allow them to stop and switch directions quickly. They also taught them how to scoop up a ball along the chair’s wheel and put it back into play.

“It’s important…because that means anyone can play, you know, young, old, disabled whether you’re really athletic or not so athletic because it just makes everyone more equal,” said Thomas-Schulenburg.

“I believe it helps people more appreciate what it is like to have a disability,” the young girl added.

The wheelchair event, while held on the sports day, was in fact, a separate event. It was an unveiling of 10 new chairs that were donated by North Peace Savings and Credit Union (NPSCU) and representatives from each organization attended.

“We have a sport wheelchair program in Fort St. John and I currently had 13 chairs that were on loan from B.C. Wheelchair Sports and B.C. Wheelchair Basketball Association,” said Megan Hunder, physical literacy coordinator for Pacific Sport during a phone interview.

“What we wanted to see come out of it was to have enough chairs to actually send them out to the schools so that they could be enjoyed,” she added, noting that the 13 chairs that they had seen better days.

Kids Sport decided to change that by wanting to buy newer equipment and NPSCU stepped in to help. In total, 17 new chairs were added to the others and according to Hunder, it gives the community something to offer students with disabilities during the colder months.

“The chairs are an option for them and their friends to stay inside and still be active,” said Hunder, noting that on cold winter days, it makes it difficult for the students to go outside.

Each chair cost roughly $2,000 and are currently being stored at the Pomeroy Sports Centre. Even though they had games over the summer, they have found it somewhat difficult to get a team going due to lack of awareness and lack of storage space for the chairs.

“I don’t know if people are aware or just not interested because they feel it’s a sport for people with disabilities,” said Schulenburg, adding that the chairs can’t be folded up and take up a lot of space.

The young athlete’s mother explained that any school within School District 60 can use the approximately 28 chairs, all they need to do is sign them out.

“It’s as simple as they just need to get into contact with…the Pomeroy Sports Centre and they sign the chairs out for a couple of weeks, I believe through the board office,” said Schulenburg.

She explained that for the principals, who are interested, all they need to is get into contact with SD 60’s transportation department and they will deliver the chairs to the school.

For Thomas-Schulenburg, who has been playing for a couple of years, it is an opportunity to teach others – regardless of ability – to learn a new skill. As her school’s advocate for wheelchair basketball, she is coaching different ages and said it is giving classmates a new understanding of those with disabilities.   

“I think my favourite thing about playing this sport getting to be the same as everybody else and especially now that a bunch of the kids have tried it, when they see someone with a disability, they don’t say ‘oh, that’s the disabled kid’ they have more respect now,” she said.

She added that since more awareness has been raised, her classmates are seeing her and not her disability, adding that they respect her as an athlete. Being an advocate, however, has had its tough moments. Thomas-Schulenburg explained that as someone living with CP, she feels singled out.

She has Spastic Quadriplegia which means that all four limbs are affected, along with involuntary muscle movement and muscle rigidity. While she has the ability to walk, she has also had multiple surgeries to rebuild her feet and like so many others who live with Cerebral Palsy, has had to undergo surgery to lengthen her tendons so she can walk flat-footed.

Living in the north has also added an element of frustration for the young girl.

“It being very cold up here, a lot of time in winter I can’t go out and play with the kids or do what they think is cool, so that just makes it a bit more challenging,” she said.

With this in mind, Thomas-Schulenburg takes it one basket swoosh at a time. She aspires to be a lawyer and is focusing on being the best student and athlete she can be. This event was just another way to bring a small town together and have some fun in the name of inclusion.

Julia Lovett


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