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One teen's journey to Special Olympics

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
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Reaching for the stars
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dalton Stilts is competing in flag football in the 2010 Special Olympics
  • He suffered a brain injury after a car accident when he was a toddler
  • Football has helped him with confidence, as well as speech skills
  • The 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games begin next week in Lincoln, Nebraska

Haddonfield, New Jersey (CNN) -- Like any doting mother, Michelle Stilts wants her son, Dalton, to go to college, get married and start a family.

But today, all the 15-year-old can think about is playing football.

This weekend, he joins his teammates in Nebraska to play flag football at the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games.

"When you think of sports, you think of Dalton," Michelle Stilts said. "He was probably born with a ball in his hand ... he loves any kind of sport."

Stilts suffered a brain injury after his family was in a car accident when he was only 21 months old. Unable to talk and paralyzed on his left side, he had to relearn everything.

Throughout Dalton's early years, his parents struggled coping with his new behavior. He had difficulty with his speech, trouble with paying attention, and he would often wander off in public.

Accommodating his needs wasn't an easy task with two other children, Shelby and Logan, at home in addition to Dalton, said Michelle Stilts.

When it came time to attend school, mainstream public school classrooms weren't a good fit for his disability.

The Stilts' needed an alternative, so the search for a new school began.

At age 7, he was enrolled at Bancroft, a school for children and adults with special needs located in Haddonfield, just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"I know he's loved here, you know, he's really given a chance to be a normal child, which is great for me, that's all I really wanted for him," Michelle said. "I always wanted him to be respected, and accepted."

Tuition at the school can range from $38,000 to $42,000 a year depending on the needs of the student.

However, in New Jersey, if a school district cannot appropriately educate a student with a disability, it can find a placement at a private school like Bancroft.

That district then pays for the education of the child.

That financial assistance has been a huge relief for the Stilts.

"We wouldn't be able to afford the care he gets here," Michelle said.

Football has played an important part in Dalton's growth. Playing sports allows Dalton to come out of his shell and be a team player, skills that will one day help him transition into society.

While Bancroft doesn't have a football team, Dalton plays with other Special Olympic athletes from the area and works with Steve Paul, the Special Olympics coordinator at Bancroft.

"He's all energy, he's a great player, he works hard at practice, he always wants be a part of sports," Paul said. "It's everything that I remember about loving sports when I was younger, that is what Dalton is."

Dalton is one of 2,800 athletes who were selected from 600,000 from across the United States to compete in the Special Olympics.

The family leaves Saturday to join Dalton at the National Games. Opening ceremonies will be broadcast live on Sunday, and the events will take place all next week in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Dalton says he is ready to win gold.

"I like to play football because I like to be quarterback and running back, because I am the fastest on the team," he said. "I want to win."

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His hard work at practice, and in the classroom, has paid off. He no longer needs speech classes and he is making progress with his attention issues and is a member of the student council.

"He's always out to help students who maybe don't get it as quickly as he does, and I think we all can learn a lesson from that," said Bancroft's principal, Bob Lenherr. "Dalton is a very special young man."

 
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