East Aurora Advertiser

The View from Right Field: A Positive Test 

Even occasional readers of this bi-weekly dispatch from Right Field in the world’s best hometown newspaper will suspect that, over the last 17 years, I’ve taken it as my mission to put a positive spin on things… probably to a fault. While I plead guilty to that charge and offer no apologies (or promises of reform), I will admit that staying positive is often more difficult than it looks.

These days finding the ray of sunshine amid the storm clouds can take some detective work. Across the pond, the invasion of Ukraine by Josef Stalin’s wannabe, Vladimir Putin, has held special horrors for Kateri and me. Her son, Ukrainian daughter-in-law and grandson were living in Kyiv and became refugees when the unthinkable turned into a reality. Luckily, they are safe in Ireland now, but so very many of their family and friends are not as the terror we thought had been extinguished forever in 1945 continues to rage.

The Buffalo Tops massacre caught me by surprise; maybe I assumed it wouldn’t happen here. Into the hopeful, encouraging spirit of the continuing renaissance in Buffalo, a brainwashed violence monger with easy access to a weapon of mass destruction came and put a dagger in the city’s heart and made us wonder if we have made any progress in the climb to the mountain Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned.  

Closer to the 14052, we had the most contentious, contested school board election in my memory. A challenge to incumbency can be constructive when it’s carried out thoughtfully and respectfully. I’ll feel a little better if I say that again: when it’s carried out thoughtfully and respectfully. Of course, given the cacophony (RIP Snake) that passes for civil discourse and the agenda-furthering propaganda that disguises itself as news, why am I surprised?

With these thoughts weighing down the normal lightness of my spirit, I took my seat at last week’s unified basketball game that pitted the East Aurora Blue Devils against the Raiders of Eden. Unified basketball brings students with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and students without intellectual disabilities (partners) together in varsity-level, interscholastic athletic competition. Three athletes and two partners are on the floor at a time, with the partners serving as non-scoring players who help their teammates with positioning and shooting and inspire them with infectious enthusiasm. I’ve loved the whole idea of unified sports from the get-go and have filled the Advertiser sports pages with accounts of the first three home games. 

In this game, the visiting Raiders were having a rough time of it. They had brought a small, lightly skilled squad with them from New York’s Garden Spot, and the Blue Devils were dominating, going up several baskets to none before the first quarter ended. Then something delightful happened. In unified basketball, the players, without instruction, seem to work together, as if one athlete’s success could be shared with all. One of the Eden athletes, a short girl, had the ball six or seven feet from the basket. EA players knew to back off and give her a little room to shoot. She tossed it up toward the rim but missed. Blue Devil athlete Josh Redick grabbed the rebound, thought about heading for his basket and then stopped. Pausing for just a second, he then handed his opponent the ball and encouraged her to try again. She missed, but on her third try, the ball cooperated and fell through the net. The stands, populated mostly by Blue Devils fans, erupted as if Michael Jordan had just slam-dunked the winning basket in the NBA finals. I hope your eyes were on the court action, because had you looked at this seasoned sports correspondent, you would have caught me tearing up. 

Oh, and halftime at a unified game—instead of plotting strategy for the second half, the Blue Devils invite their “opponents” onto the court for a rousing boogie session and line dance. Worth the price of your ticket right there.

Several times, EA’s most skilled players—Redick, Peter Marth, Bo Gear, Carter Tidswell—repeated the gesture, making sure that each of the Eden players had a hand in producing their team’s 28 points. The final score could be described as a lot to not very many, but “not very many” could also describe the number of people—players, coaches, fans—who cared about the score. It was a great game.

Later in the week, I jumped on an opportunity to visit one of my favorite places in Western New York: Providence Farm Collective (PFC). I was hanging out with the 15 senior students from the East Aurora High School who had volunteered to spend the day there painting signs for the collective, which serves new farmers from Buffalo’s African and Asian immigrant and refugee communities as well as the traditionally underserved communities of Buffalo. Many have been through horrific times as refugees, and all are taking advantage of PFC’s offer of land to cultivate and the tools, agricultural guidance, marketing and entrepreneurial skills to make it work at no charge. 

On this day, with the magic of spring still building into summer, the place was busy with farmers giving seedlings new homes in the fertile soil. In a month, Providence Farm will be awash in vegetables, many of them familiar to us, many familiar only to the farmers who hail from Somalia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Congo and Myanmar. The produce will find its way to the PFC CSA, their farm markets in Orchard Park and Buffalo and to the tables of the producers and their extended families.

I met Dao Kamara, a leader of the Liberian farming community and newly appointed marketing and community engagement coordinator for PFC. I could appreciate the excitement he shares with all farmers and gardeners as they watch the growing season unfold in earnest. And I could feel the passion he has for his mission to help the participants in this collaborative farming become small businessmen and women, pursuing, if you will, the American Dream.

Amid the voluble chatter of our kids helping out and conversation with Kamara and a couple of the farmers, it was like a world self-contained. How hard it was to imagine that a kid with an automatic weapon was, what?—so frightened, threatened, indignant, hate-filled, bigoted, misguided, gullible, pathetic—that he would look on such a scene and decide to destroy it. After all, many of the PFC farmers live in Zip Code 14209 and shopped regularly at the Jefferson Avenue Tops. 

Well, the self-proclaimed supremacist has saddened us all, but his mission was an utter failure, because 300 farmers and dozens of young people have not, and will not, miss a beat at the farm this summer.    

While we are finding the sunshine in the overcast skies, it’s worth noting that West Falls resident and philanthropist extraordinaire, Scott Bieler, fresh from his donation of an ambulance to the West Falls Fire Company and his purchase and remodeling of the Aurora Theatre, has noted the situation. His response to the tragedy in Buffalo? Not food or money; plenty of that has come in from generous WNYers who share in the condemnation of the killing. Bieler has donated the resources for mental health counseling. Just knowing where he has applied his next act of generosity, just knowing that our kids and immigrant farmers can help make growing food a happy and cooperative venture, just knowing that our schools remain in good hands, just knowing that athletes, even those with “intellectual disabilities” understand the true meaning of sportsmanship, gives me hope. 

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Columnist Rick Ohler invites readers to find past columns and articles on his website, www.rickohler.com.

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