Players from Riverwatch and North Forsyth middle schools pounded the hardwood on a recent afternoon, while their cheerleaders encouraged the crowd to show its spirit.
Among those upbeat girls, with their hair in matching black bows on the Riverwatch side, was Kaitlin Meriam.
While she danced and cheered as enthusiastically as her fellow squad members, Meriam has Down syndrome.
Courtside along the bench, Meriam’s friend Jordan Huffman urged the Panthers on to victory.
Huffman, who serves as manager for the eighth-grade boys’ basketball team, also has Down syndrome.
But Meriam and Huffman aren’t letting that stop them from doing what they love. And according to their mothers, it’s easy for them to be “normal kids” at Riverwatch.
“Jordan and Kaitlin both want to be just like their peers and have all the same wishes and aspirations,” Krista Meriam said.
“Riverwatch has done an excellent job at facilitating an environment for educating and socializing teens like them.”
While elsewhere in years past, students like Meriam and Huffman may have been shuffled off to secluded classes, separated from the “normal” students, that’s not the case at Riverwatch and other Forsyth County schools.
Despite having some deficiencies and therefore taking a few special classes, most of their course loads are with their typical peers. They also walk the busy hallways and have lunch with everyone else.
To encourage an even higher level of understanding among their peers, Riverwatch has a special program called “Panther Partners,” overseen by counselor Shari Endo.
Endo explained that the program pairs special needs students with a “partner” who is a typical peer.
The Panther Partners share many activities during the school week, including eating lunch together several times, working on academics and playing basketball.
Endo also leads activities such as planning a party or writing thank-you notes that help the students learn life skills.
“It definitely has duel benefits,” Endo said. “The special needs students make friendships and it helps their confidence, and the typical peers learn compassion and understanding for differences. It’s just fabulous.”
Meriam’s partner, Madison Deck, is also a cheerleader, while Huffman’s, Connor Cagley, is on the basketball team.
Deck said she and the other cheerleaders welcomed Meriam with open arms.
“We were all so excited for her to make the squad,” Deck said. “She wanted to be one last year when I first made the team, so I worked with her and helped her during the week of tryouts.”
Ashley Veline, who coaches the squad, said Meriam is a “crowd favorite.”
“Everybody loves to watch her,” she said, noting that Meriam works just as hard, if not more so, than her peers. “She’s a delight. She’s brought a lot of joy to the girls on the squad.”
Huffman’s brought equal joy to the basketball team, said coach Chuck Pruitt.
“The boys just love him to death,” he said. “I’ll put my ear up the locker room door before games and I’ll hear Jordan in there giving them a pep talk, telling them what they need to do. It just kills you. He’s truly a pleasure.”
Being able to take part in the extracurricular activities has had a huge impact on both Huffman and Meriam’s social skills, their mothers said.
Kathryn Junod, Jordan’s mom, said the family moved to Fosyth County three years ago from Tennessee.
“There with everything, we had to push,” she said. “Everything was kind of a battle.
“But since we’ve been [in Forsyth], we’ve seen a lot more progressive strides made. They do a great job here. Jordan feels like he fits in socially.”
Added Krista Meriam: “The biggest thing is they’re not any different and can rise to the challenges and expectations that are set before them.”
And they can also be an inspiration.
“Having Jordan keeps everything in perspective,” Pruitt said. “He reminds us all that the basketball part is just a game.
“He reminds us what life is really all about.”