Monday, March 23, 2009

Two special siblings, one extraordinary bond

Two special siblings, one extraordinary bond
by Julie Mack Kalamazoo Gazette
Sunday March 22, 2009, 1:57 PM

KALAMAZOO -- He's a Kalamazoo Central basketball star, a high-profile player on a team making a serious run for the high school state championship.
She's the adoring younger sister who basks in his reflected glory.
But the story of Devin and Miya Oliver doesn't stop there.
Miya has Down syndrome, which causes serious mental impairments. Even more than Devin's stardom, Miya's disability defines the sibling relationship.
It makes it more complicated. It also makes it more rich.
Neither are ordinary teenagers, and each has benefited from the other. Being Devin's sister puts 13-year-old Miya in the inner circle of the high school social network.
Being Miya's brother gives Devin a sense of empathy and compassion unusual for a 16-year-old whose considerable talents could easily lead to arrogance.
That's especially true this year, which has been a spectacular season for K-Central basketball. After losing its opener, Central has won 22 games straight and is currently ranked No. 2 in the state behind Detroit Pershing High School.
K-Central took the district title a week ago and the regional title on Wednesday, a game in which Devin was the team's high scorer. On Tuesday, K-Central plays in the state quarterfinals against Rockford. If Central goes on to win the state basketball championship, it will be the school's first since 1951.
Miya goes to all the games and can be Central's most exuberant fan. At times, her parents have had to stop her from yelling at the referees or dancing on the court in the midst of a game. Last week as the Central team was being honored as the district champs, Miya stood nearby and performed a flying jumping jack as each player was introduced.
As a child who lives in the moment, she doesn't understand the importance of the state tournament. But she is clearly captivated by the pageantry. After Wednesday's win, she squealed in excitement when the regional trophy was brought out. "Look, Dad, a trophy!" she said. "There's a trophy!"
Then she ran down the bleachers and onto the court to kiss and hug her brother.
A year or two ago, Devin was embarrassed at times by Miya's uninhibited enthusiasm at his games, said their mother, Amy Oliver.
"He's more confident now," Amy Oliver said. "He knows that she is really and truly rooting for him."
Devin agreed, calling his sister his "No. 1 fan."
But more than that, he said, "She's my best friend."
'A very sweet kid'Devin is the kind of kid who makes college recruiters take notice.
A junior who goes by the nickname of D-Mo, he's a wiry 6 feet 5 inches tall and is still growing. On the basketball court, he's a leader with talent. In the classroom, he gets top grades in tough classes.
He has other things going for him, too. A cheerful, open personality that's made him popular among peers since elementary school. A tight-knit family headed by attentive, supportive parents -- in fact, Amy and Kelvin Oliver met while both were playing basketball at Western Michigan University in the early 1980s. Amy now heads the Math and Science Center operated by the Allegan Regional Educational Service Agency, and Kelvin is a decorated Kalamazoo public safety officer.
Miya is Devin's only sibling, and when they were younger, he said, he was sometimes bothered by her disability. Part of it was worrying what other people would think. Part of it was worrying when other people would treat her badly.
But now, he said, he sees Miya as "a blessing," and views her as a mainstay in his life."When's something wrong, I can talk to her," he said, "Even though she has Down syndrome, she's real easy to talk to."
He also said that being Miya's brother has given him a different outlook on life. He knows the hurt caused by teasing or being excluded. He's also learned that life is not always fair and that success has many definitions.
Chris Bullmer, Devin's AP English teacher, who has a developmentally disabled brother himself, said he sees how Devin's personality has been shaped by his relationship with his sister.
"Devin has this very loving nature and he's extremely outgoing and he knows not to be judgmental -- all things that come out of having a special-needs sibling," Bullmer said. "He's just a very sweet kid."
Bullmer said he recently saw Devin and Miya together, and "it was so cool to see the interaction between them. You could tell how close and loving they are."
Amy Oliver said the lessons that Devin has gained from being Miya's brother are especially valuable now that his successes are garnering so much attention. Among the colleges that have contacted him are University of Michigan and Stanford.
"It helps him stay humble, stay on an even keel," Amy Oliver said. "It makes him better able to handle this newfound fame, because he knows how to put things in perspective."
It's not just Devin who has been influenced by Miya, Amy Oliver adds.
"Devin has all these friends, all these basketball players who would never be exposed to a special-needs child if it wasn't for their friendship with Devin," she said. "There's a whole group of friends who've been touched by Miya. It's the ultimate experience in inclusion."
'A very special person'But Miya is much, much more than just an object lesson in overcoming obstacles, say the people who know her.
"The fact that Devin is her brother and the sense that he has about her is awesome," Kalamazoo Central Principal Von Washington Jr. said. "But she doesn't need him to set her apart.
"She's an active, wonderful young lady. Even if you didn't know her, just seeing how passionate she is about basketball and her brother makes you realize that you're dealing with a very special person."
Still, Devin's success comes at an opportune time for Miya.
Now an eighth-grader at Hillside Middle School, she'll be in high school next year -- which can be a tricky transition for any kid, but especially for those with special needs.
Yet through Devin and going to basketball games, Miya has become a familiar face in the high school community.
"There are lots and lots of people who know her and speak to her by name," Amy Oliver said. "It's going to make her transition to Central so much easier."
It's not just a matter of people reaching out to Miya, but also how Miya has initiated friendships among Devin's teammates and friends. "She's kind of established herself," Devin said.
Besides expanding her social network, Miya's connection to K-Central hoops has helped her in a more basic way: It's improved her own game.
She plays the sport through Special Olympics and is so accomplished that she recently moved to a team for adults.
"She has a very good shot," Amy Oliver said. "She's learned a lot from going to Devin's games."
Just as Miya cheers on her brother, Devin recently went to Miya's Special Olympics tournament, and his eyes light up as he describes it.
"She did real well," he said. "Basketball is a passion we share."


Beverly said...

Oh, I just love this! Thanks for sharing it! What a blessing to have such a bond!

Monica said...

Great story!!! ~need tissue now~

Linda said...

Beautiful story! I think I'll go to bed now- I should sleep very well after reading about this sweet family!