VILONIA -- Hundreds gathered Thursday night as they advocated joy and inclusion while students and faculty faced off in the fifth annual Vilonia Hoops Classic basketball game to support students with disabilities.
Student helpers aiding their classmates with special needs stepped to the side several times as they allowed those with special needs to take the spotlight in a 50-27 win over the Eagle Educators — the school's faculty-filled team.
The Soaring Eagles Hoops Classic allows students, faculty and the community to come together for a friendly competition among students and their educators while providing students with disabilities the opportunity to participate among their peers on the student-filled team — the Soaring Eagles Unified Student Team.
Superintendent David Stephens said the community truly shows its support when this even rolls around each year.
"The Hoops Classic is a great event, supported by the Vilonia community," he said. "It's a great way to have fun and show our support for our students with special needs."
Following the Soaring Eagles Unified Student Team's 23-point lead Thursday night, students of all ages rushed to the center of the Eagles court in the Vilonia High School Gymnasium and burst in song and dance.
The impromptu performance is another example of the positive attitude shared by the entire community, assistant director of special education Julia Lee Moore said.
"We celebrate inclusion, as seen in the students randomly joining in a dance that was initiated by a student with Down's Syndrome," Moore said following Thursday's event. "The community of Vilonia embraces students with special needs, students learn this behavior from parents and our school district."
Vilonia Schools participates in unified sports, which is comprised of teams of students with disabilities and typically developing peers as it advocates embracing all individuals and promotes inclusion.
"Students learn to regard their peers by what they contribute to the team, not what they are lacking," Moore said. "We look at gifts, not differences."
Along with the student vs. faculty basketball game, the crowd of about 350 saw the Vilonia band perform, watched the Little Dribblers show off their skills and also were captivated by the half-time routine performed by the school's unified cheer squad. The unified cheer squad is a squad of both student partners and athletes with disabilities. The squad also went onto perform Saturday at the Special Olympics Unified Cheer competition in Russellville.
Making their way up and down the court, participants were covered in sweat and filled with joy.
Thirteen-year-old athlete Hayden Burnett said he enjoyed being a part of the team and getting to have fun with his friends during the fifth annual event. His mother, Rebekah, said Hayden has participated in the Hoops Classic "ever since he was old enough."
Rebekah said she is thankful for the love and support the Vilonia School District and the community as a whole continues each year to show toward students with disabilities.
"Vilonia is the absolute best when it comes to helping students with special needs," she said, adding that her son began actively participating in Special Olympics thanks to a precious teacher's encouragement. "Ms. [Brenda] Norwood really worked with him and got him into Special Olympics."
Vilonia Special Education Director Josh Hart said the Hoops Classic is "all about the push for an inclusive environment."
The program was created five years by the former special education director, Liz Kelley.
In lieu of an entry fee, organizers asked attendees for donations that would help support and provide supplies for the life skills classes. The event brought in $1,700 that will go directly to the school's Encouraging Persons in Inclusive Communities (EPIC) program.
After a group photo-op showing off the student-earned trophy, student Gage Braces quickly dashed away from the crowd, with the trophy still in hand, and lunged up the bleacher steps to show off decorative piece to members of the band. Braces recently joined the school's marching band.