Menendez girls basketball team rallies around Special Olympian Caitlin Kirk

The best athletes take and make their chance. There may be only one opportunity for greatness and they shoot for it without reserve. 

 

It does not take long to realize that Caitlin Kirk is many things, but, reserved isn’t one of them. 

Caitlin is a senior Special Olympian who attends Menendez High School and is the most faithful Falcon on campus. 

A part of the team 

Caitlin, a senior, competes in paddleboard, track and field and softball toss; but, basketball has always been her sport. If the Falcons girls basketball team is playing at home, Caitlin is somewhere in the gymnasium. 

“I’m happy she comes to the games,” said Falcons senior forward Aryelle Wagner. “Every time she comes to the games she says, ‘We got this.’ And when she says that, I know we’re going to win.” 

So far, the Falcons have won five of six home games this year. 

“It’s my favorite thing to do,” Caitlin said during the second quarter of a recent win. “Those are my girls right now.” 

As Caitlin sat on the first row of the bleachers explaining why she loves the Falcons and their head coach, Kerri Robison Gallagher, and being a Menendez student, she munched on a slice of pizza that was too alluring to pass up after she spending the first quarter seated on the bench with the players. 

Caitlin is as much a part of the team as seniors Wagner, Darrnisha Varnes and Vida Kohl. 

Off glass, on point 

Menendez hosted Palatka on Jan. 11 for Senior Night. Before the game, Caitlin and the rest of the seniors were honored with gifts in appreciation for their contributions to the program. 

Most nights, Caitlin can be spotted wearing some type of Pedro paraphernalia. On this night, Gallagher had other ideas. 

Caitlin would dress out. She wore was awarded No. 35 and would make the first field goal of the game. 

“We did the national anthem, she warmed up with (the team) and we called she was one of the starting five,” Gallagher saidxplained. “We had a play and she rolled with it. She was supposed to pass to the wing and get to the post. But, she said ‘I got it.’ It was heartwarming for her. She deserved that moment. God was with us, because it went perfectly.” 

Wagner in-bounded the ball to Caitlin at mid-court. She dribbled right toward aher teammate on the wing. As she approached the 3-point line, she brushed off the pass, got to the block and lofted a ball from six feet. 

As is the case with another No. 35, Caitlin was unafraid to use the backboard from close range. Her shot tumbled into the hoop. 

Her teammates as well as Menendez cheerleaders flooded onto the floor to congratulate her. 

“I made it right in there,” Caitlin said. “It was crazy. We were going crazy on Senior Night.” 

Favorite Falcon 

The experience was further evidence just how crazy the Falcons are about Caitlin. The 20-year-old is beloved on the south St. Augustine campus. 

“Caitlin never has a bad day,” said Yanetta Arnold, Menendez dean of students. “She comes to school excited. She is excited when you see her at lunch. She is excited when you see her in the afternoon. She consistently spreads love and sunshine throughout our campus.” 

Caitlin’s journey to Menendez was a circuitous one. 

Caitlin was born in Jacksonville in August, 1997, but has lived in St. Augustine her entire life. 

“When she was four 4 months old, her pediatrician kept hearing a click in her hip,” said Caitlin’s mother, Nikki. “They referred us to Nemours (Children’s Specialty Care in Jacksonville.) We saw an orthopedic (surgeon) and they did X-rays. She has a muscular disease, congenital fiber type disproportion myopathy.” 

The disease has been described as one where a person endures a loss of muscle tone and muscle weakness. It has caused dislocated hips, something that bothered Caitlin for years until she had screws surgically inserted into her hip. It has also been found to cause delays in motor skill development. 

Kirk said her daughter had multiple hip surgeries as well as surgeries on her mouth to fix a partial cleft palate in her throat. 

“We would teach her how to walk. And then, in a month, or two, she would be right back in a body cast because her hips would come out. It was off and on teaching her how to walk. She was in a wheelchair for a while.” 

In the classroom, Caitlin started high school elsewhere, but after a few weeks her mother applied for a McKay Scholarship. The scholarship allows students with disabilities to attend the public or private school of their choice. Nikki wanted Caitlin at Menendez. Once the scholarship was awarded, Caitlin enrolled. She has flourished ever since. 

Kirk said sports were just part of Caitlin’s growth at Menendez. She has become involved in the school’s Sparkle cheerleading team as well as the Best Buddies program that fosters friendships between students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with their classmates. It’s through that involvement that Caitlin was connected with the basketball team. 

“It warms my heart,” Kirk said. “At the beginning, I kept telling Caitlin, ‘Don’t worry about it, Caitlin. Let’s go.’ I was leery, but Caitlin kept on and kept on. When Caitlin has something in her head, she will grasp it. She will get it. The team, they love her to death.” 

Menendez basketball player Aniyah Foster has been assigned relegated to scorekeeping this year after sustaining a knee injury earlier in the season. As disappointing as this season has been for the junior guard, Caitlin has been a bright spot. 

“She is my friend,” Foster said. “She is supportive, loving, caring and crazy — in a good way. She loves me.” 

Caitlin loves all the Falcons. And the Falcons love Caitlin. 

As much as Kirk thinks Caitlin has been helped by the Falcons, Gallagher says argues the properties are inversed.  

“It was amazing. She is always energetic,” said junior forward Darralela Tobler. “She is our biggest supporter. I was happy she got the first two points of the game.” 

There are times where superlatives are superficial, but, in the case of Caitlin they are not. She really is the Falcons’ biggest supporter. Who else would show up to a basketball game hours after having hip surgery? 

Menendez hosted St. Augustine that night and there was no chance Caitlin was going to stay be at home recuperating. 

Joedy Ashton, Menendez’s maintenance coordinator, remembered looking at Caitlin and asking: “Really?” Arnold, who doubles as Caitlin’s on-campus godmother, recalled being “mad” at her. Gallagher was just as dumbfounded as her colleagues. 

“We just got back from Jacksonville for the surgery and I had to bring her here,” Nikki explained. 

“Nothing is going to stop her. If I didn’t bring her here, I would pay for it,” Nikki laughed. 

It takes a village 

Nikki said people like her mom, Carol, and aunt, Debbie Drozd, along with the on-campus support of Arnold, Ashton, Celeste Bowker, “Big Joe” Stewart and Karen Zupko “are angels from heaven. They are God sent.” 

“I have a lot of fun,” Caitlin said of her on-campus adventures. “I love Mrs. Zupko. I get to do fun stuff: Sparkle cheer, Best Buddies and I have a lot of fun. I like working in the cafeteria with Big Joe.” 

Caitlin said she cannot wait for Grad Night so she can take Arnold on Doctor Doom’s Fearfall at Islands of Adventure. Arnold, supposedlyallegedly, doesn’t go on rides. 

Then again, Arnold has not had a student like Caitlin Kirk. 

When Menendez has commencement this year, Arnold admitted she won’t be able to contain her tears. Her right eye will have tears of joy at how far Caitlin has come while her left will have tears of sadness that she will be flying away from the nest she has established in south St. Augustine. 

“Ever since the surgery (to remove the screws) she’s been doing pretty (well),” Kirk said. “If you watch her run, you can see how she moves her hips. She has come so far. I’m very surprised. I’m glad she’s been able to do some of this stuff, Kerri letting her do it and the Special Olympics.” 

In addition to being the Falcons’ best jump shooter — her perfect shooting percentage has yet to be topped — Caitlin and her team, the Pedro Menendez Hawks, will compete in the Special Olympics Florida State Basketball Championship in Tavares. 

Caitlin and the Hawks have played at the state tournament and will do so again next weekend. She wants the Falcons (13-6) to have the same experience. 

“We’re trying to go to the state championship,” Caitlin said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to help us go to the state tournament. I want them to beat Ponte Vedra High School and the Sharks.” 

 

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