This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Congratulations to Brenda Clark, the Notebook’s West Region Changemaker for Schools!
Clark is a classroom assistant at Overbrook Education Center (OEC) in a fifth grade classroom serving visually impaired and blind children. In 1995, she started the first Special Olympics basketball team at OEC, the District’s school for visually impaired students in grades K-8.
In its first year, the OEC Special Olympics basketball team won a bronze medal at the Philadelphia Special Olympics March Games. Then and now, Clark says, OEC has the only team in Pennsylvania with visually impaired children.
The Special Olympics basketball team spurred the creation of multiple sports teams at OEC, including volleyball, soccer, and track, which involved both visually impaired and non-visually impaired children. The teams competed against other schools in Philadelphia, and Clark coached every one of them, along with Tina Randall, a teacher at OEC.
For Clark, coaching sports is not just about teaching children how to win the game. "It all centered around giving something to the vision-impaired students here, so that they could have self-esteem and participate in a sport," she says. "They learned how to work together."
Working under the motto that "exercise to the body will bring exercise to the mind," Clark also sees the positive impact that participating in sports has on students’ behavior and academic performance.
This spring, four students who have participated in OEC’s Special Olympics program since it began in 1995 will graduate from high school, three of them with offers to attend college.
Clark’s connections with the students she coaches spill over into many arenas off the court. She has taught the visually impaired children how to use public transportation to get to practice, often riding the route with them at first. She started a newsletter about OEC’s sports teams, training students to interview, photograph, and write stories about each other. She is a mentor to one of her former Special Olympics athletes.
Clark’s pride for these students runs deep. "[The children] have really taught me patience, and tolerance, and a lot of gratitude," she remarks.
For Clark, coaching Special Olympics is the right way to give back to her community. She encourages others to find a way to give back that is right for them. "None of us are here today, if it wasn’t for somebody to push us along the way. So help pay it forward, and help someone else."