Watching her daughter play volleyball, April Standage sounds like any good sports mom. She keeps an eye on the refs, she encourages the players, and she keeps a mental tally of the score. And like any good sports mom, she would much rather watch the game than talk to a reporter.
It turns out that Standage has loved sports all her life. Starting in middle school, she played volleyball and basketball, threw the shotput and discus, and ran the 4-by-200 in track. Her 15-year-old daughter, however, is just now discovering sports.
Due to the rules of the Department of Child and Family Services, her name cannot be used, so we'll call her J. J has been living in residential treatment facilities since age 12, after Child Protective Services removed her from her father’s home. For the past 10 months, she’s been living at Kemmerer Village, a treatment center in Assumption, Illinois, where she’s had the opportunity to participate in sports. She currently plays on the soccer, basketball and volleyball teams, competing in the Illinois Inter-Agency Athletic Association.
Never heard of it?
It was established more than four decades ago, by Tom Newman, a child care worker, as a way for kids living in treatment facilities to get to participate in organized sports. Most of the kids were removed from troubled families by the Department of Child and Family Services, which funds the sports league for a bit more than $100,000 per year. IIAA holds regular organized seasons in nine different sports, and hosts an annual arts showcase. For the past 37 or so years (he doesn’t keep count), Tom Corr has been the association’s director (and only employee).
At the state championship volleyball tournament held recently in Springfield, Corr welcomes teams to each sporting event with a speech he’s recited thousands of times.
“Here is what is important to us -- these four goals," he says, standing in the midst of two rival teams. "Goal number one is try hard to win. No babies, no sissies. Try hard to win. But goal number two --have some fun. Don’t turn this into too big of a deal. Don’t let us staff turn it into too big of a deal. Be good to yourself and have some fun.
"Goal number three -- be good people. Be good to your teammates, be good to the other team. Goal number four is -- if you are not playing well or you don’t think your teammates are playing well, instead of getting mad and frustrated, do some self-talk and tell yourself ‘I gotta get better at the game. I’m not gonna worry about anybody else, I gotta work on myself. I gotta get better at the game.’
"So try hard to win, have some fun, be good people, get better at the game. That’s the important things today.”
In some ways, this tournament looked like any other sporting event. There were kids practicing, kids goofing around, kids snarfing pizza and sandwiches between games. But in another way, this event was completely different. Emory Appleberry, an IHSA-certified referee who has been working these tournaments for about four years, explains what sets the IIAA apart.
“You just don’t see the anger or the intensity that you would other places," he says. "Of course you want to win. That’s one of the four key things that Tom always talks about. But it’s not win at all costs. It’s win and make yourself a better person. And everybody here has bought into that.”
What makes this goal even trickier is the broad spectrum of athletic ability across these teams, where kids can be as young as 13 or as old as 19. At one end of the spectrum are kids struggling with developmental delays; at the other end are high school varsity athletes. The obvious star of Kemmerer Village -- a kid wearing the jersey number 23 -- described what it's like to play on a team where not all teammates are athletes.
“It can go both ways," he says. "It can feel bad sometimes like, when you do lose a game, you can look at it like well, it wasn’t my fault. But then again, you gotta think about it: If you’re the best person on the team, you’re supposed to lead these people to get better. You can’t just dog 'em all the time .... You gotta lead ‘em.”
April Standage is already seeing the benefits of IIAA in her daughter, J.
“Since she’s been playing sports, her behavior’s been a lot better, she’s been staying busy, not a lot of idle time on her hands, and she’s learning about getting along with other people,” Standage says.
After every match, coaches and referees score both teams on sportsmanship. These score sheets are collected and tallied by Tom Corr. At the end of the tournament, Kemmerer Village had won first place in volleyball, and was awarded another larger trophy for achieving a perfect score in sportsmanship.