DeRidder athlete brings out best in special-needs student

DeRidder High School basketball player R.J. Gladney and special-needs student Jordan Hickman have formed a unique bond through the school’s buddies program, which pairs regular education students with special-needs students.

Special to American Press

R.J. Gladney and Jordan Hickman are DeRidder High School students who share a unique bond. Gladney is a star basketball player who is signed with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Hickman is a student with Down syndrome whose teacher describes him as a “social butterfly,” well-known throughout the campus.

It was not always so for Hickman, however. His mother, Pamela Sleezer, said that before his friendship with Gladney, her son was introverted.

“Social skills were a struggle,” Sleezer said. “He didn’t have any friends because he was on his own little island.” He didn’t look forward to going to school; so much so that his mother said, “You couldn’t get him out of the bed or the van.” But things turned around significantly for Hickman when Gladney took a special interest in him.

Kimberly Courville, Hickman’s teacher, said the school has a buddies program that pairs regular education students with special-needs students, but that Gladney’s friendship with Hickman is the first time a student not involved in the program has taken the initiative to begin a relationship. Gladney said that even though he shines on the basketball court, “It’s not all about me all the time. Sometimes you have to give back.”

Gladney first began helping Hickman train for the Special Olympics. Hickman had been participating in the Olympics for a number of years running and throwing the softball, but with Gladney’s help, he has been able to “master” those events, said his mother. “Now, he places much higher, even winning first-place ribbons.” Not only did Gladney train Hickman, he also attended the Special Olympics in support of him. Some friends would be a bit reluctant to attend such an event, said Sleezer, but Gladney’s willingness to “go above and beyond” is one of the things that makes the relationship so remarkable.

{{tncms-inline content=”<p><strong>‘It’s just heartwarming to the character in this young man and how he has helped other students be more supportive of our special-needs population.’</strong><br /><strong>Harry Hooker</strong><br />DeRidder High School principal</p>” id=”e98846e7-3b72-439a-aa42-e5f979326b27″ style-type=”quote” title=”Pull Quote” type=”relcontent”}}

Harry Hooker, school principal, agreed, saying, “It’s just heartwarming to the character in this young man and how he has helped other students be more supportive of our special-needs population.”

It is not a one-sided relationship, however. Since the start of their friendship Hickman has taken a new special interest in basketball. “He’s never had an interest in sports. It was never something he was really motivated about. But now he’s actually interested in it and gets excited.”

He attends the home games and cheers Gladney on from the stands. Gladney told Hickman’s mother that he enjoys having him there because he is one of the only ones who will never be disappointed in his technique and is just happy to watch him play.

Hooker said the school is looking for ways to include Hickman in the school’s basketball program. Sleezer said that being a part of a team would “mean the world” to her son because it’s always been a goal they could never accomplish due to his disability.

Though Jordan is limited in his verbal communication, his mother said his affection for Gladney is apparent. “His face just lights up so bright. He’s just genuinely happy. It’s the first time that he’s ever had a buddy that he can just do guy things with.”

Gladney will be graduating in May but said he plans to continue his relationship with Hickman. Hooker said that because of this relationship Gladney’s legacy at the school will live on beyond the basketball court.

“We’ll hate to see R.J. leave, but I’m sure there will be someone that will pick up and help with our special needs students,” he said. “It’s infectious.”

‘It’s just heartwarming to the character in this young man and how he has helped other students be more supportive of our special-needs population.’

Harry Hooker

DeRidder High School principal