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PNG High starts Special Olympics PE class

PORT NECHES — Aaron Gonzalez stands in the center of the Port Neches-Groves High School gym with a basketball in his hands and a huge smile on his face. He is getting ready to launch a half-court shot as his classmates and coaches cheer all around him.

Gonzalez is one of the PNG life skills students with Down Syndrome, but in that moment one wouldn’t know that he was ever born with what some consider a disadvantage because his smile is too bright.

Port Neches-Groves High School senior Aaron Gonzalez practices his shot. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

Lauren Hanratty, Port Neches-Groves life skills teacher, said this is exactly what the new Special Olympics physical education class is all about.

“This puts a smile on their face,” she said. “These kids need to get out of their seats, run around, have fun, smile and laugh with each other. It helps them form relationships and get to know each other better. It’s really hard to come in here and not have a huge smile on your face just seeing how much fun the kids have.”

Port Neches-Groves High School principal Scott Ryan started the Special Olympics program last year, adapting the class schedule this semester to include a separate athletics class first thing in the morning.

Ryan approached Hanratty last year to be the physical education coach and mentor, a chance at which she immediately jumped.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “We would have to practice for our games, and I had to pull them out of class so they could practice. It was really hard for us to get ready for games, so Dr. Ryan suggested having a class just for practice.

“He came to me and was like, ‘Hey, you might be a track coach. We want to start a Special Olympics program and I want you to coach,’” she said. “Immediately, I was like yes, I’m in.”

Port Neches-Groves High School senior Carson Pitre practices his layups Friday in the gym. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

The students attend the class every other day and begin with light stretches before jumping into their sport for the season.

Aron Broussard, a junior in life skills said his favorite sports so far are football and basketball.

“I like catching the football and playing basketball,” he said. “I’m enjoying it. I like football the most, it’s just fun. The coaches are great and I’m excited for football, basketball and track.”

The Special Olympics is kicking off this year with basketball season, spearheaded by the new PNG head basketball coach Chris Smith.

Smith said he was hired at PNG to get kids to play and enjoy the game of basketball, a task he now gets to accomplish in more ways than one.

“The (basketball teams) are all very different, but the reward is the same,” he said. “I enjoy any opportunity that includes basketball, so this is just a double win for me.”

Hanratty and Smith have been blown away by the PNG student body’s response to the new Special Olympics team.

“We don’t know a lot of what these kids go through. This gives them something positive to come to school to,” Smith said. “The student body here is amazing when they walk down the halls, they know who they are. They’ll come to their games just like they go to their football and basketball games. It’s just an awesome experience for both groups.”

Hanratty echoed the sentiment referencing last year’s flag football team and the response by the PNG Indians.

“The football players love to come and help,” she echoed. “It makes our kids feel more special that the real football players help out and coach them. There was just so much support. Our kids felt special because everyone would start coming up to them in the hall, give them a high-five and call them by their first name. It’s just amazing.”