BOX ELDER -- Seventeen-year-old Alyssa Dubois might be the most popular student in the Box Elder school system.
“Everybody loves her, she’s always smiling,” said Box Elder football coach Jake Eldridge. “I don't think she's ever had a bad day. And I have a lot of bad days. So when I come to school it’s awesome to see her because she brightens my day.”
Dubois was born with Down syndrome and is mostly non-verbal. But in the absence of words, her eyes and expressions tell you everything you need to know. Behind those eyes is a passion for people, a drive to compete and whole lot of personality.
“She's the sweetest. Whenever she sees you, she usually does the slime trick,” said her friend Johnaye Doney.
The slime trick is one of Alyssa’s favorite ways to greet people. She’ll extend her fist for a bump, but at the last second will slide her hand under yours and say, “Snail!” - and the laughter that follows is infectious for both parties.
“She loves to give everyone hugs and kisses,” Doney added. “She’s just so sweet.”
Though Alyssa has always been accepted and supported by her classmates, for a time she was the only Box Elder student with an intellectual disability. For most of her life, she’d never met anyone else with Down syndrome.
But that all changed in 2019 when Box Elder paraprofessional Annie Baumann worked with BEPS administration and coaches, as well as staff at Special Olympics Montana, to create a Box Elder team. Baumann was the program coordinator and at the time Alyssa was the first and only member.
Annie and her daughter Jai, who is Alyssa's unified partner, had grown close with Alyssa and her family over the years and were curious how she would respond. They took her to the 2019 spring games in Havre.
"I actually wasn't even certain that we were going the right path. I didn't know if Alyssa would even want to compete, let alone talk to anybody when we got there,” Annie said. “When we go into public, she gets very shy unless it's her friends and teachers.”
But any concerns or misgivings were quickly dashed. Alyssa saw herself in the other athletes. She found a new community of people just like her, and she was welcomed with open arms.
“The reaction she had, it was like looking in a mirror,” Annie said. “She just would look at the athletes she was competing against, and she didn't care if they won or lost. She was just happy that they were her new friends.”
In 2020 the Box Elder team added a second member in 9-year-old Angel LaRocca. Complications at birth left Angel facing challenges to development and motor skills, but BEPS staff members describe him as the most determined student they’ve ever worked with.
And his personality is as big as his heart.
“I love Special Olympics and that's pretty much it,” Angel said matter-of-factly.
Angel competed in his first bowling event in November and took home a gold medal, which he proudly displays everywhere he goes.
“I hope I get another one and then I hope I win first place again,” Angel said. “I’ll probably end up with 100,000 medals when it’s all said and done.”
Angel’s parents, Denise and Joseph, burst into tears of joy when a sheriff’s deputy placed the medal around his neck.
“I was holding him because he was tired after playing five games,” Joseph said. “He was so happy though. It was just a really, really proud moment as parents.”
“It just changed his whole attitude, his whole demeanor towards the world in general,” added Denise. “We didn't know that there was that many special needs kids in the area. But it was cool. It was loving, it changed his whole life and the way he looks at life now.”
For the Box Elder Bears, Special Olympics means more than the medals. It’s unlocked confidence and potential, and keeps them moving forward.
“I think for Alyssa, her greatest accomplishment would be independence,” Baumann said. “Once she realized she could do the things that she didn't think she was capable of she knew right away, she could do more.”
Alyssa joined the cheerleading team at Box Elder. In the beginning she mostly just copied her teammates but eventually learned all of the cheers. It’s become one of her favorite things to do.
“That wouldn’t have been possible without Special Olympics,” Annie said.
Angel has set goals for himself and crushed them. Well, most of them.
“He set a pretty high goal in the stride challenge, something like a million steps,” laughed Joseph.
Eldridge has seen Angel’s perseverance first hand in practice and competition.
“Angel works harder than anybody else in the school. He doesn't want you to go easy on him,” Eldridge said. “He loves to compete and he wants to win and he wants to push himself to get better every day, which is awesome.”
The Box Elder team consists of just two athletes, but whenever Angel and Alyssa compete, they know they have the love and support of an entire community behind them.
Box Elder held a school-wide assembly to send Alyssa to her first state summer games in 2019, and has plans for more once it’s safe to do so in line with COVID guidelines and restrictions.
“The administration does everything they can, they have never said no,” Eldridge said. “Everybody here is their best friend, so it's great to see the support from everybody in the community.”