Tonawanda News — For the past handful of years, the advent of spring has meant something more than school break and Easter egg hunts for Drake Elementary School sixth-graders.
The annual March Madness basketball game — which has outgrown the Drake gymnasium and now takes place at a North Tonawanda Middle School gym packed with students, teachers, parents and grandparents — involves Drake’s sixth-grade “upperclassmen” in a hours-long game that they’ve worked toward for weeks.
But this year, there was a little extra something special.
Drake sixth-grader Kale Shiesley, 11, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a wheelchair to get around, has attended the school since kindergarten and has witnessed the growth of the March Madness event, said his mother, Bonnie Litten-Shiesley.
“For the past six years, Mr. Keohane, the gym teacher, has put on this March Madness, this tournament,” Litten-Shiesley said. “He called me last week and said, ‘I’ve been working with Kale, and it would be great if Kale could play in the March Madness this year.’ ... He modified the game for Kale and if I was OK with that, he would love to have Kale play in the tournament.”
“Kale came home that day with a big smile on his face. He was bubbly and bouncing around. For a week now, this is all I’ve really heard about. He’s very, very excited.”
Teacher Rob Keohane said that he started the event, which marks the culmination of the physical education basketball unit, in 2007, his first year at Drake. The students look forward to it for years, and eagerly await their sixth-grade class assignments to find out what team they’ll be on and to design their own T-shirt jerseys for the game.
Kale, Keohane said, was no exception.
“I’ve had Kale since first grade. The kid is phenomenal,” he said. “Ever since first and second grade, he’s talked about March Madness, and there was no way I was going to exclude him.”