Wheelchair hoopsters hold court

Two basketball teams raced around the court — on wheels — at the Flintridge Prep gym Saturday, as the Rebels hosted the wheelchair basketball team from the Rancho Los Amigos rehabilitation center in Downey.

Six athletes from Rancho Los Amigos were cheered on by a crowd of about 50, made up of parents as well as Flintridge athletes and teachers who took turns getting into wheelchairs and joining the game.

For Mandy Artukovich Viole, who grew up in La Cañada and now lives in Glendale, it was a special chance to have her son Matthew, 14, compete within the community.

“This [demonstration] was the first one locally, and it was great to have the community back it so much and support it,” she said.

Eighth-grader P.J. Fellows wanted to set up the game as part of her Community Impact Service Project for Flintridge Prep, said Michelle Fellows, P.J.’s mother. She said her daughter decided to host the wheelchair basketball team after volunteering at Rancho Los Amigos’ Pediatric Carnival with her Girl Scout troop. Alex Rivera, the school’s athletic director and president of the Athletic Council on Leadership volunteered his clubs’ help, making the event a reality.

Rob Welty, director of the Rancho Los Amigos wheelchair sports program, said more than 40 athletes participate. The program, which has been sponsored by Las Floristas Children’s Charities since its inception in 1987, is split into the Futures (ages 4-12), Juniors (ages 12-18) and Adult (18 and up) divisions, and includes basketball, football, rugby, lacrosse and other sports .

Welty said Saturday’s demonstration, which brought a team from the Juniors basketball program, was a chance for the athletes to build skills that will help them in the future while alsoraising awareness of the program.

Viole said that for Matthew, a student at Rosemont Middle School in La Crescenta who was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed from the hips down, wheelchair basketball has provided a chance to set and achieve goals.

“It’s just made a world of difference with our son,” she said. “There aren’t very many programs in the Los Angeles area. He’s got three older brothers, and they’re all doing rugby and lacrosse and basketball and everything, so it has made a huge difference for him.”

In fact, Viole said Matthew aims to play wheelchair basketball at one of the several U.S. colleges that offer it. She said Welty and his assistant director, Rick Tirambulo, help push their athletes to reach such goals.

“They’re great mentors for them, and they encourage them to be independent with their personal hygiene, and their homework, and they really push grades, and they want school to be first,” she said.

Ultimately, Viole said she was happy to have a local event, so other parents can see how wheelchair sports can benefit their children.

“It kind of puts the word out, so that anybody else in the area, if they do have a kid with special needs, it’s a great opportunity to get involved,” she said. “When you find [a program] and your child has an interest in it, it makes all the difference in the world.”

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