By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 7, 2014
SMYRNA—On a Tuesday afternoon, 6-year-old Hannah Foy of Smyrna and her mother, Beth, are tackling homework before heading to the YMCA for a swim.
While waiting for older sister Sarah to arrive home from St. Joseph School in Marietta, Hannah eagerly calls out numbers on a calendar as her mom points to each one.
Hannah, who has Down syndrome, is in a mainstream kindergarten class at a public school. She has a full-time aide and leaves the class for instruction in math and writing.
She readily shares that her favorite color is blue, and chicken and eggs are favorite foods. She loves reading and can already recognize 70 sight words.
While her overall nature is cautious, Hannah is quick to give a new friend a hug.
Her parents, Michael and Beth Foy, have sought out many opportunities, both extracurricular and academic, for their daughter, including adaptive swim, gymnastics, speech therapy, and the Special Olympics program. Hannah also enjoys bowling on the Wii and at the lanes.
They sometimes encounter reluctance when they explore including Hannah in programs offered to other children.
But that was not their experience when they asked about the Lil’ Cougars basketball program at St. Joseph School. The co-ed activity introduces the sport to students in kindergarten through second grade in the parish and school community.
Michael Foy called team coordinator Bob Lepp, who has led the program for three years, but wasn’t sure what to expect. “It’s not always well-received,” explained Foy.
Foy’s skepticism was met with no hesitation at all from Lepp.
“Oh, absolutely, we would love to have her,” is what Foy heard on the phone.
“That made it extra-special. It was very pro-life,” said Foy about Lepp’s agreement without a moment’s pause.
Lepp said he thought it was helpful for the other children to be around Hannah. Any trepidation other children may have had went away when they realized why Hannah was there.
“She’s just here to play basketball,” said Lepp.
As a former participant in Lil’ Cougars, Sarah Foy served as a facilitator for her sister during the nine-week program. Hannah is working on her verbal skills and often uses signs to communicate. The two have a special nonsensical word that means come and hug your sister.
Michael Foy’s presence during the sessions also was a comfort for his daughter in trying something new.
“Her father was there at all the drills,” said Lepp.
Hannah was the first person with an intellectual disability to join in the athletic program.
“We were so happy to hear yes,” said Beth Foy. “These are the least of His people.”
Hannah, who doesn’t like to wait, was provided a ball to pass to other children while waiting for her turn at drills. She enjoyed being part of Lil’ Cougars, and the family plans to participate again.
The program runs between November and January, with registration taken each September.
Michael Foy called Lepp’s can-do attitude refreshing.
“I thought it worked out so well,” he said.
While Sarah attends St. Joseph School, the Foys are parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna, where Hannah attends regular parish school of religion classes. They also like to attend Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta, where Father Nicholas Azar, parochial vicar, encourages Hannah to be front and center.
They know Hannah can be disruptive sometimes at Mass but call her inclusion in the basketball program a great example for the Catholic community as a whole.
“She is a very powerful teacher,” said Michael Foy. “She’s just a beautiful girl.”
Hannah will celebrate her seventh birthday on March 26 and has had a long road of health problems.
“She has changed my life so much,” said Beth Foy.
Sarah, 9, has also learned a lot from her sibling. She recently was elected as a fourth-grade class officer at St. Joseph, running on a platform of caring for special needs children.
Membership at the Y in Buckhead has been another positive experience for the family, and they were featured in a 2013 YouTube video promoting fundraising and membership at the Y.
“Everyone wins with these kids around,” said Beth Foy.
Oftentimes parents of children with sickness or disabilities wonder why it is happening.
“I so see the why,” said Beth Foy.
They call the message of inclusion their daughter’s “ministry.”
To learn more about Lil’ Cougars, visit www.cougarathletic.org.