NORTON, Mass. – The Wheaton College women's basketball team continued their work with the Heller's Angels Special Olympics team last week when they surprised them at practice with pizza to celebrate the completion of their assessments.
The pizza party was the latest in a string of community service projects the Lyons have conducted with Heller's Angels. In December, the Lyons invited the group to Emerson Gymnasium for a game of kickball. Ten days later, they traveled to Attleboro to work out with the group at one of their two-hour practices.
"Our team takes great pride in its community involvement," said Lyons head coach Melissa Hodgdon. "Our relationship with the Heller's Angels has grown since we became involved with them last year, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do."
Hodgdon was introduced to Heller's Angels through Patti Rezendes, an employee in the college's Service, Spirituality, and Social Responsibility (SSSR) office whose son joined the team at age 14. Hodgdon approached her team about becoming involved, and senior Gabbie DePalo took charge from there.
"Melissa has been great about getting her basketball team involved," said Rezendes. "They've grabbed the reins on this and taken the initiative to plan events with the team. Her team has been amazing and has really enjoyed working with Heller's Angels."
DePalo – who will graduate in May with a degree in psychology – explained, "I have aided a physically and mentally handicapped child who lives next door to me since she was born. She's non-verbal, but I absolutely fell in love with her. It gives you a different perspective on life. When I heard about the Heller's Angels, I thought it was a great way to get the team involved."
The Wheaton women's basketball team began inviting the Heller's Angels to home games, and soon afterwards, the Lyons attended the group's 'Spring Fling' event.
"We started to learn each other's names and exchanged cell phone numbers with them," said DePalo. "It's so important for us to give back because so many people have done so much for us. Athletics is a great way for them to feel equal and a part of something where they don't feel they have a disability."
Heller's Angels was created by Caron Heller, a special education teacher at Brennan Middle School in Attleboro, Mass., and is comprised of athletes ages eight and older. They compete in bowling, basketball, track & field, volleyball, soccer, football, and cheerleading with the purpose of teaching these athletes how to work together as a team.
On August 1, 2011, the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) initiated a partnership with Special Olympics at the 2011 NCAA Convention. The purpose of the partnership is to improve the lives of Special Olympics athletes through their involvement with Division III student-athletes and to foster a mutual learning experience between Division III student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes; to provide a platform for recognition of Special Olympics athletes; and to raise awareness about Special Olympics and the programs and services provided.
While DePalo played her final collegiate game last month, she has left a permanent mark at Wheaton no amount of points or rebounds could surpass. "Gabbie truly blended our program with theirs and helped us develop a relationship that will last a lifetime," said Hodgdon.