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updated: 11/11/2010 6:09 PM

Carol Stream teen's hoop dreams revived

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  • Jenny Youngwith's service dog, Simba, a 6-year-old yellow Lab mix, won't be allowed to carry her oxygen tanks on the basketball court.

      Jenny Youngwith's service dog, Simba, a 6-year-old yellow Lab mix, won't be allowed to carry her oxygen tanks on the basketball court.
    BEV HORNE | Staff Photographer


All Jenny Youngwith wants to do is play Special Olympics basketball with her friends from high school.

But that's complicated, because the high school senior has a respiratory disorder and uses oxygen. Her service dog, Simba, carries the two 4-pound tanks.

Her dream appeared to be dashed when Special Olympics Illinois said it wouldn't be safe for her to play and a federal lawsuit filed on Jenny's behalf threatened to derail the fledgling Special Olympics program at Community High School in West Chicago.

Now, though, things are falling into place for Jenny and her teammates.

The Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, or WDSRA, stepped in at the 11th-hour to keep the basketball team alive. And the Youngwiths have found a way for Jenny to carry the oxygen herself, in a modified backpack that secures both the tank and the tubing that runs to her nose.

It's not the perfect solution, because Jenny is likely to get winded more easily, but it might make it possible for her to play.

Special Olympics Illinois experts are now assessing whether Jenny can safely participate in scrimmages and games wearing the backpack.

"Obviously, team play begins soon and our objective is to have that evaluation as quickly as possible," said Doug Snyder, Special Olympics Illinois president and CEO.

If the backpack doesn't work, "we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out something else," said Jane Hodgkinson, WDSRA's executive director.

The chain of events began last fall when the first Special Olympics basketball team formed at Community High School. Jenny, who played basketball her freshman and sophomore years during gym class, was eager to join.

But Special Olympics Illinois refused to allow Jenny on the basketball court with her service dog, metal oxygen tanks and length of plastic tubing.

The games are competitive and fast-paced, and "from the very beginning of this discussion, it has been entirely about safety for all of the athletes," Snyder said.

"From the beginning, we have indicated we would consider and evaluate different methods of providing oxygen to Jenny and we would love to have her competing as fully as possible."

But Jenny was devastated, and suffered migraines as a result, her mother said.

In August, Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy organization, filed a federal lawsuit on the Carol Stream teen's behalf. The lawsuit charges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and state law. Special Olympics Illinois and District 94 were named as defendants,

Alan M. Goldstein, senior attorney for Equip for Equality, would say only that the legal processes are "going forward," but added he might be able to comment more fully in a week or so.

"The (basketball) season just started and there are things being discussed, and there's not a clear answer," he said.

In light of the lawsuit, officials in high school District 94 were wary of hosting Special Olympics basketball for another season. That's when WDSRA, which has 13 other Special Olympics basketball teams, stepped in.

"They didn't want to see these kids lose out as a result of what was going on," said Katherine Doremus, District 94 school board presidents,

The team will wear WDSRA uniforms instead of Wildcats jerseys, but will use the high school's facilities for practices and home games.

Jenny is allowed to inbound the ball during the game, to travel with the team and to practice skills such as shooting and dribbling during drills. Special Olympics offers competition at the state level in individual skills for athletes who are not in a position to be on a team, Snyder said.

WDSRA's Hodgkinson said she hopes Jenny's case will lead to more ideas on how to best meet the needs of the growing number of people with disabilities who want to participate in sports, but are "more medically fragile than the athletes we were dealing with in the past."