RICHFORD — Not yet 16 years old, Gina Shields already knows plenty about being strong.
It isn’t physical strength she can tell you about. Born with a developmental disorder, the Richford Middle-Senior High School student couldn’t walk until she was 2 and was told by doctors she’d likely never play sports.
But the strength to move to a strange small town where she faced down bullying? The strength to carry on at school even as her mother battled cancer, twice? The strength to come to terms with her autism and ADHD, which make day-to-day socializing difficult and at times, impossible?
Gina Shields knows all about that.
It all culminated Tuesday, Jan. 5, in a defining moment for the eighth grader, late in a middle school game against Sheldon, when visiting coach Doug Kittell arranged with officials and both teams to give Gina a shot at the basket.
Her mom, Kara Shields, with her hair wrapped in a bandanna and her terrier, Jack, yipping on the couch, recalls that evening as she pulls out her phone to show the video. She has three files of the shot, all filmed by different people from different angles.
The videos play, showing Gina standing to the right of the foul line, just a little closer to the hoop. She heaves the ball toward the net once, twice, and again, her teammates moving her into position, rebounding the ball and passing it back.
Finally, on the sixth try, the ball bounces in. Both teams’ players celebrate. And before time expires, Gina makes another shot, this time on her first try, as she dribbles the ball down the court.
A 15-year-old on the autistic spectrum, who just a few years earlier was picked on and bullied at the playground, now was receiving high fives and hugs from friends she never thought she’d have.
“I’m very proud, and everyone has been so supportive,” Gina says, curled up in big brown chair next to her mom at their apartment in Richford. “It makes me want to do it more.”
School has never been easy for Gina. Beyond struggling to concentrate and battling just to get to class on time, the hustle and bustle in the halls between periods can be overwhelming for her. And because it’s difficult for Gina to pick up on social cues, when she says the wrong thing at the wrong time, peers often shy away.
“We talk openly about her autism. That isn’t something to hide from her. It’s something she wishes she didn’t have. She wishes she understood it more and it would go away. She’s trying to figure it out. We spend a lot of her day talking about how to interact in that social circle,” says Kim Lloyd, Gina’s one-on-one aide from Northwestern Counseling and Support Services, who has worked with her since sixth grade. “It’s something she’s learned to accept and we all help her and we all understand we have our weaknesses and our strong points.”
By any standard, Gina is a typical 15-year-old. She plays on her iPhone, takes too long in the shower and her mom wishes she’d spend less time chatting with friends from who-knows-where on the laptop. She calls herself a bit of a couch potato and lists video games and drawing as her favorite hobbies.
Gina struggles with math but admits she’s starting to like it, as well as English. Her mother says that Gina is an excellent artist. Her rendition of Starry Night might look nothing like the painting, yet it’s so beautiful, Lloyd says.
Kara and Gina moved to Richford from Springfield, Mass. in 2009 when Gina was in third grade, shortly after Kara’s father died. Kara’s mom, Claire Kaczmarczyk, who sits on the couch between the two, is from the area and there are still many family members in Franklin County.
“Coming from the city and coming to a tiny little town, I was like in shell shock. I am used to the city. I was only 90 minutes from Boston and Springfield is not small,” Kara says.
And through all this, kids could be cruel to Gina. Neighborhood children broke her glasses and stole her coat when they first moved there, Kara says. They took her shoes and tried to smother her. Kara chased them “like a crazy mother.” She called the police and filed a report.
Then Gina got punched in the stomach at school. When Kara told Gina to defend herself, the girl never tried it again. Still, in Richford, kids simply didn’t know what autism was or what Gina was dealing with each day.
Those kids grew older though, and so did Gina. As she moved from elementary school into the tiny middle/high school at Richford, Gina began to enjoy going there more, exploring her growing independence. Kids matured, and they were able to empathize with her. The bullying didn’t stop completely, but Lloyd, who has an autistic son of her own, saide Gina’s classmates were protective of her, too.
It was here that Gina met Lloyd, and Shane Beam, a former basketball coach and NCSS counselor at Richford.
Beam always had a basketball with him, says Lloyd. Any free moment, he was in the gym, shooting around with the kids. Normally shy, Gina was curious.
He convinced her to play. And when Gina explained to her mother that there were no tryouts, Kara let her attend practices.
“I was as nervous as she was. I really thought it would be done in a week or two weeks tops, we’d be done,” Kara says. “There were other activities Gina’s tried, like dance. And it didn’t stick. But this was different.
“There’s no aide so of course I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no aide with her.’ But I saide, ‘This is probably good.’” Kara says.
“Well the kids are kind of like the aides,” Gina adds.
“This is good experience with her to not have an aide with her so that she can learn to be a little bit more independent and kind of go. And I saide, ‘Look at your teammates and watch your coach and kind of learn from that,’” Gina continues.
This all happened as Kara was being treated after a breast cancer diagnosis, her second in 17 years. As the season started, she could barely get Gina to practice, sick from chemotherapy. Kara underwent a bilateral mastectomy July 21, but she barely made it home for Christmas when an infection followed a surgical procedure in December.
“She’s strong. She’s strong because she doesn’t have any choice but to be strong. But that was terrible for her,” Lloyd saide. “She thought her mom was going to die. All she could do was try to get through every day and we’d talk about it constantly.”
Kara wears a wig under her bandanna, and her energy remains high, chasing around a 15-year-old who gleefully lets Jack, locked upstairs, down into the living room.
“And then when you shaved your head I was like, ‘Oh my God, put the wig back on.’” Gina says, the dog leaping from lap to lap.
Anyone who knows Gina can see the changes in her confidence and the growth of her happiness since she joined the basketball team. She proudly wears her burgundy jersey, no. 31, neatly tucked into her shorts, taking warm up shots before a game off to the side as a teammate passes her the ball. Each game she earnestly hopes for even a few happy minutes on the court.
“She used to have nothing in common with the other kids to talk about. Particularly girls. Now she will join in conversation about the sport. It’s kind of a segue,” says Lloyd.
Gina’s coach, Becky Sheltra, says she has been a wonderful addition this season.
“Gina is just as committed as any other player on the team,” Sheltra wrote in an e-mail as her team prepared to play its last game of the season Wednesday. “Gina’s teammates have been extremely supportive and encouraging. The girls are always helping Gina to go where she needs to be and they instruct with so much patience. The girls really look out for her.
“I feel Gina has shown not only her team, but her fans, what kindness and real sportsmanship is about,” Sheltra added.
Gina loves summers, especially Camp Rainbow, a popular NCSS camp held at Georgia Shore for youth on the autistic spectrum, but she already is looking ahead to the fall. Her mother’s jaw drops when she says she’s thinking of trying out for soccer. Next year she’ll be in the high school and can play varsity. That doesn’t faze her.
“Can I do basketball camp?” Gina wonders as she stares at her mother’s phone before looking up for a moment. “I wonder if at basketball camp you have to run suicides?”
“She’s going places. I hold her to higher standard and she reaches for that standard,” Lloyd says. “She’s an amazing girl. I’m really proud of her. She amazes me.”