New Basketball Program Helps Grafton Clients Build Social and Motor Skills

Anyone who’s been keeping score knows that the last few years have been challenging for nearly everyone. It’s no different for Grafton staff and clients—social distancing and other COVID restrictions meant reimagining interaction, collaboration, and even treatment. That’s what was on Samuel Butler’s mind when he teamed up with former Shenandoah basketball player Chris Rhone in 2022 to develop a new program for the Winchester campus.

Butler, a current case manager, has worked at Grafton for 35 years. Rhone has long served the Winchester community through his Unique Hoops Basketball Academy, which uses basketball as a vehicle to expand opportunities for youth. Together, they began brainstorming ways to help Grafton clients form bonds outside campus after COVID restrictions were scaled back. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for clients to feel like they were part of a team outside of Grafton,” he said.

Butler and Rhone believed that Grafton clients could thrive in a team environment when given the right support and opportunity—and this philosophy inspired them to develop Special and Unique People who are Exceptional and Remarkable Ballers (SUPERB), a new Grafton program that supports clients in building social and athletic skills in a team environment. SUPERB’s first season spanned eight weeks last fall.

Interest in the program was high. Altogether, 20 Winchester clients of various ages and athletic abilities signed up for SUPERB. Each Tuesday, the athletes gathered for 90 minutes for instruction and practice. Split into two groups of 10, they took turns working on basketball skills and social development during each session. Students gained skills like dribbling, passing, and shooting, as well as social skills like team building, expressing and recognizing emotion, and taking part in conversation.

After the fourth week of SUPERB, the 20 athletes were split into four teams and the games began. For the remainder of the program, teams met twice a week to practice and compete. On game days, clients were able to wear their team jerseys to school, creating further unity within the group. Other students and adults noticed the jerseys, which led to even more interest in SUPERB.

Butler says game days at Grafton resembled those you might see at any school, with athletes high-fiving in the hallways and talking with their peers and teachers about how they planned to compete in the games. “They gained a genuine sense of belonging, and the program definitely boosted self-esteem.”

Of course, Grafton parents were also enthusiastic about becoming involved, attending the practices and games to cheer on their athletes. “Some parents never thought their child would have the chance to do something like this. They didn’t expect to be able to take a picture with their son or daughter in a uniform holding a basketball,” Butler shared. “One parent told me the picture they took is sitting on their mantle, so every person who comes in will see that their son plays basketball.”

Butler says it’s been rewarding to see the students gain abilities like dribbling and shooting, but SUPERB has had a deeper impact as well. “The athletes became great team members. They built collaboration and teamwork skills, and their growth from week one to week eight was enormous.”

The success of SUPERB’s first season “took a village,” says Butler. Several staff members contributed to the program, including Judith Steger, Tonia Sylva, Monique Hawkins, Naomi Evans, Christine Potter, Darren Lambert, Allyson Davis, and Pamela Kuehl. Two volunteer coaches, Dee Copeland, Jr. and Kenny Gordon, led the teams to build upon their new skills in practice sessions and games.

In December, SUPERB ended its first season with an awards ceremony. After the final games, each athlete received a certificate of participation and a medal. However, the experience isn’t over for Grafton clients. The players are scheduled to attend Shenandoah University’s men’s and women’s basketball games in January, and a bowling night is also on the calendar. Butler says the team plans to kick off SUPERB’s second season in March 2023, and he hopes to eventually expand the program to Grafton’s Berryville campus.

“I think it’s important for individuals with disabilities to have these opportunities, because it is definitely important to them,” says Butler. “The ceiling is just unlimited for what the SUPERB league is going to be able to offer.”