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Team makes everyone a winner as deaf kids join in

March 7, 2007

For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/08/07 Ten-year-old Dakota Overton of Newnan said the first time she tried to play basketball last year, she was embarrassed because people in the crowd were looking at her.

Dakota, who plays in a program called Upward Basketball, is deaf. She communicates with her coaches and several other deaf children on the team by sign language.

Sarah Dorio/special


Fourth grader Jessica Monroe uses sign language to talk to her mother on the bleachers during one of her basketball games with Upward Basketball, a program that allows deaf players on the teams. Jessica is one of four deaf children in the program, which has incorporated a deaf ministry for three years now. The ministry provides interpreters both on and off the court, helping young athletes discover untapped talent and build self confidence.

Sarah Dorio/special


Jessica Monroe, a deaf fourth-grader, runs onto the basketball court at the beginning of her Sunday afternoon game. She plays for the Lady Volunteers, an Upward Basketball team. In addition to the interpreters, Jessica’s assistant coach is a deaf high school basketball player, providing not only valuable coaching lessons, but acting as a significant role model for the young players.

Because of the program, sponsored by Palmetto Baptist Church, Dakota’s earlier embarrassment has turned into excitement for every game she plays in now, even though there are still bumps in the road.

“It’s hard to play with hearing children,” she said. “They need to learn to sign a little bit because it’s hard to communicate when they can’t sign.”

Four deaf children participate in Upward Basketball. The three girls and one boy have a coach who speaks to them in sign language, an assistant coach who is deaf, and interpreters who run around the court with them to explain what’s being said and done.

Upward includes about 300 children in first through sixth grades from 45 churches in the south Fulton County area, according to coordinator Virginia Munn.

The games are played half-court at Palmetto Elementary School. No scores are kept for the first- and second-graders, and the rules allow every child to play the same amount of time to teach sportsmanship and character development.

All of the staff are volunteers.

Linda Lindsey, a sign language interpreter who promoted the idea of including deaf children in Upward Basketball, said the program is based on the principle that every child is a winner.

“Basketball builds their confidence levels,” Lindsey said. “Deaf children sometimes are afraid of the world and getting out in it. With this they learn teamwork and that everybody is important.”

Dakota’s father, Darryl Overton, said the program has made a difference in his daughter’s life. “You can see the development,” he said. “Last year she didn’t know how to play or the rules. This year she does. She’s learned so much.”

Lindsey said the hearing children who play also benefit from having deaf friends on the team. She said they may not learn all the proper signs, but they sometimes pick up on certain gestures, like the thumbs-up sign or raising the hands above the head and moving straight fingers back and forth to signify applause.

Ten-year-old Makayla Huggins of Palmetto said shooting is the best part of the game for her, but learning from her deaf teammates is a challenge she welcomes.

“It’s really, really fun to figure out how to sign,” she said.

Hannah Johnson, 10, of Newnan said observation helps her with signing.

“It’s cool, but it’s hard because you can’t talk to [the deaf players] and it’s hard to learn sign language,” she said. “Sometimes I watch Miss Lindsey a lot and sometimes I know what it means and I do it, too.”

Lindsey, who confessed she isn’t a basketball fan, said Upward Basketball not only bridges the gap between the hearing and the deaf, but also provides a way for the deaf to build strengths that could help them succeed in life.

“I just wanted them to have the same thing, the same opportunity to succeed as the rest of them are having,” Lindsey said. “Because of the way this is set up, they’re getting that. This is not just about basketball. It’s a safe place for them to try and try and try again without anybody laughing at them.”