By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
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.”
Keohane obtained a small basketball hoop and worked with Kale for weeks leading up to the event. Kale also made his own jersey for the event, choosing No. 8, his mom’s old basketball number.
At the game March 28, Kale was able to take shots at the two-minute marks and other times, scoring 12 points as his classmates — and family, including his mom, dad Kevin Shiesley and sister Kyler — cheered.
“He’s a big part of that sixth-grade class,” Keohane said. “Just because he can’t shoot at a 10-foot basketball hoop shouldn’t mean he can’t take part. He’s always smiling, always in a good mood. He’s just a good kid to be around.
“The kids are so supportive. They love Kale. ... The kids accept him and I pray he’s going to be as accepted when he gets to middle school. They don’t look at him as a person with a disability, he’s just physically challenged. ... And Kale has got a great attitude.”
While Keohane put the credit on Kale, the family lauded the teacher the students call “Mr. K” for making it all work.
“I commend Mr. K for thinking out of the box. He’s taking a chance and making it work,” Litten-Shiesley said. “It’s been a good, heartfelt week. It’s good to see Kale so positive. He’s been on a high, just ... happy. That’s what you want.”
Patricia Adler, Drake Elementary principal, also credited Keohane for his efforts.
“He’s very sensitive to students with special needs, and he does a great job,” she said.
For his part, Kale said that he was excited to be on the court, but not by all the attention.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was very exciting. ... But it was nerve-wracking. I was nervous to shoot.’
“It made me feel happy.”
As for Keohane, Kale said, “He’s the best”
While the game is done for the year, the family’s battle continues. Litten-Shiesley, who serves as president of the Western New York chapter of the Families of SMA, said that Aug. 3 will mark its 10th Annual SMArt walk for a cure, which takes place at Beaver Island State Park. She said they hope to break a record this year and raise $100,000 toward the cause.
When Kale was diagnosed in 2003, at 18 months old, she said, there was no treatment and no cure for SMA. There are now treatments, so a cure may be on its way.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “We’ve always felt that way with Kale. It might not be the same way, but it’s Kale’s way.”