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Students from alternative schools in the city and suburbs competed this weekend in their own version of the Big Dance -- the Chicago Area Alternative Education League's annual basketball tournament.
The event, held Saturday and Sunday at Forest View Education Center in Arlington Heights, gave students from the participating CAAEL schools a chance to feel a sense of "normalcy," coaches said.
"They don't normally get included in events like this," said Ryan Green, coach of the varsity basketball team at SEAL South school in Romeoville. "This tournament lets them experience something many of their peers might take for granted."
CAAEL is a network of about 50 area schools that serve students who face a variety of special challenges -- emotional or behavior disorders, proximity to violence, learning issues and more. CAAEL tries to help the students overcome their challenges and, in some cases, move back into their local mainstream schools.
The 36th annual CAAEL basketball tournament brought teams from all corners of the metropolitan area to Arlington Heights. The games were competitive, but everyone involved -- coaches, players, parents -- focused more on hard work and sportsmanship than on winning or losing.
"These games are about building confidence and about teaching the kids," said Josh Axelson, a coach and teacher at Mades-Johnstone Center in St. Charles. It was the school's first time participating in the tournament.
Axelson said the experience was a valuable one for his players. Mades-Johnstone player Jaime Sanchez, 14, agreed.
"It was so fun and exciting," Sanchez said. "To be out there playing with all the other teams, including some really good ones, was a great experience. I hope we can keep doing this."
Tom Barnes, a Naperville resident whose 12-year-old son, Dominic, attends SEAL North school in Lombard, said the basketball tournament has benefited his son both emotionally and culturally.
"The difference in his confidence is huge," he said. "And I like it too because kids from all over the area play here. Being from the far Western suburbs, it's great to see my son on the floor with kids of all different cultures."
The CAAEL Art Fair was held in conjunction with the basketball tournament. The fair gives students a chance to exhibit their paintings, sculptures and more.
Lisa Quintos, a Lyons resident who also attends SEAL North, created the design and image that will be used on T-shirts for next year's tournament.
"I had a hard time believing it when I found out," she said. "When I realized it was true, I started jumping up and down," she said.
"I'm so happy for her -- this is such a great thing," said her mother, Nancy Quintos.
CAAEL was started in 1976 by Forest Park educator John Martin. Martin continues to be the organization's only paid employee; a dedicated staff of volunteers helps execute all of CAAEL's initiatives, said Sarah Lorenzi, Martin's daughter.
"What the volunteers have done is truly amazing," she said. "You watch these games and you completely forget that the kids have unique challenges."
Lorenzi said she hopes to take some time off from her teaching job in order to lead CAAEL for a time and allow her father to retire.
"Our struggle right now is just getting the word out and keeping this great thing going," she said.
For more information CAAEL, go to caael.com.