A group of Neosho students are heading to Princeton, N.J. next summer to compete in the National Special Olympics.

Keith Patterson, NHS special education teacher, will be coaching a girl's basketball team, made up of Neosho High School students Azalea Ray, LaShayla Gillespie and Makayla Slawter, and recent NHS graduate Dominique DeChant.

The team also consists of students from Marshall and Independence, Mo.

The team will be among 150 athletes from Missouri competing in the National Special Olympics June 14-21.
"It'll be about five days of playing basketball, they'll have pool play to get the teams matched up," Patterson said, noting that they would see teams from across the country.

Patterson said he was first approached in the winter, and asked to find four or five female students who would be interested in forming a basketball team. With their team assembled, the Neosho athletes joined with athletes from Marshall and Independence, and competed at the state tournament in Mexico, Mo.

"They kind of had us hand-picked, but then they watched us and made sure our girls could handle being away from home," Patterson said. "They had us walking a mile every day and doing three-hour practices, things that would be really tiring and our girls did well."

Patterson said the Neosho athletes face social and learning challenges, and that competing at the national tournament will provide a unique opportunity for them.

"This gives them an opportunity to be with others," Patterson said. "We travel a lot, so they have to learn to take care of their responsibilities, their clothes, all of that. Money wise, they have to learn if they get sent money how to spend it, just little things that you never really think of. Pretty well all my girls need this to help advance them."

While the girls have already started their preparation, holding shooting practices and running through drills, Patterson said they will really kick off the road to the tournament on Sept. 13, with a team meeting.

Patterson said the girls will also be working to fundraise for their trip to the Special Olympics, as the cost is $1,500 per person. No fundraising plans are concrete just yet, though Patterson said plenty will be underway soon.

Meanwhile, those wishing to donate to assist with the team's travels can contact Patterson by emailing him at pattersonkeith@neosho.k12.mo.us or by calling him at 592-1330.

While competing at the national level offers a unique opportunity for his students, Patterson said the opportunity to coach the team is special for him as well.

"It's just really an honor and a privilege to be able to do this, to work with kids," Patterson said. "You know, the smiles they can put on your face, it's just unlimited."