The annual Heidi Prior Hearts and Hoops Special Olympics Basketball tournament is about so much more than just a game. And organizers say that’s just what Prior would have wanted.
“This gets me every time,” said Sarah Hammer as the students jumped to their feet, cheered and waved signs supporting the athletes. Hammer is the special education director at TK Schools.
Prior was a longtime TK teacher who started the Hearts and Hoops tournament at TK several years ago. The event was named in her honor in 2022 after she died in a traffic accident in 2021. Her husband, Jim, and his son, Noah, came Thursday to watch the games.
“I’m really glad it’s still going on and I know Heidi would be thrilled to see all this. It’s just fun coming here and watching all the kids have so much fun,” said Jim Prior.
Noah, who came for the first time this year, said he was especially impressed when all the high school students came in for the first game and cheered for both teams. “All the kids being really enthusiastic - my Mom would really love it,” he said.
Jim said he appreciated the camaraderie between the players, coaches and all the students. “I love that everyone gets to play and how the students here cheer for everyone - it doesn't matter what team they are on or what the score is in the game.”
TK’s team sported new black and orange uniforms this year thanks to Money Concepts of Middleville. The company hosts an annual charity golf outing and last summer chose to support the TKHS Special Olympics basketball team. In addition to the new uniforms, funds donated were used to purchase new basketballs and other needed supplies.
High School teacher Jillian Foster said the new uniforms mean a lot to the team. “Before, we were mixing pieces of old uniforms together that didn’t match. It’s nice for them to have new uniforms as a team. We want to thank Money Concepts for their support.”
Six teams competed Thursday in the tournament - two from Kenowa Hills, two from Hudsonville and one each from Byron Center and TK. A group of high school student volunteers served as referees, scorekeepers and timers.
High School teacher Matt Wonders said he didn’t have any trouble getting kids who wanted to help. Most, he said, either play basketball, helped referee youth sports, or are part of the high school Linkers program. “I didn’t want kids who just said they would do it if I needed them, I wanted kids who really wanted to do this, and we had plenty of volunteers. It’s really such a great event,” said Wonders.
Kylee Rison is one of the Linker students who volunteered to help. “I love it. It’s such a good feeling to be part of something like this and see their smiles every time they make a basket. It’s really cool to see. We don’t get moments like that a lot. It’s special,” she said. Rison has been working with the Linkers program for about eight years.
“Working with these kids literally makes my day every day,” said Ella Palazzolo. “It’s fun to get to be part of it.”
Lindsey Velting and Katie Burkhead agreed. “It makes me happy to see them so happy,” said Velting.
All high school students were dismissed from classes for one hour to watch the opening game of the tournament. And their reaction when the first basket was made was nothing less than magical - putting smiles on the faces of all the players.
“Kudos to our student section. They really were into this and just showed a lot of support for everyone,” said Wonders.
Laura Stolsonburg had an entire girls junior varsity team cheering her on. Laura is the team manager and rarely misses a game or practice. “She is always so supportive and so happy. She’s always there supporting us. I’m glad we’re able to be here to support her today,” said Emma Dykhouse.
“People come out and support us when we play all the time. It’s nice that we can come out and support these players too. It makes me happy and I love seeing them so happy. It’s a really good day,” said McKenna Hoebeke.
At the end of the day, most players and spectators lost count of the number of baskets made or the score at the end of the games, but none seemed to have left without a smile on their faces and a good feeling about a special group of students enjoying a simple game of basketball.