Sports have provided former Greece Athena (N.Y.) basketball star Anthony Lamb and Victor football and lacrosse standout Zack Estabrooks moments they’ll never forget, and over the weekend they gave two girls with special needs memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Lamb, 19, accompanied Alexandra Hammell to Athena’s Senior Ball on Saturday night at the Plantation Party House in Spencerport. She has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder. The 19-year-old doesn’t speak and and has been in a wheelchair almost her entire life.
Estabrooks, 18, asked Shelby Hay to be his date for his Senior Ball on Friday night. The 12-year-old with Down syndrome didn’t go — her parents thought it would be too overwhelming — but she did buy a new dress, got her hair and nails done and posed for pictures with Estabrooks at a pre-ball party with more than 100 people.
“When you have a daughter who is non-verbal, non-ambulatory, needs nursing care, I never even thought this was a possibility,” said Hammell’s mother, Colleen.
Part of her thank-you text to Lamb the next day read, “I can’t put into words what you did for our daughter and our family.”
A two-time All-Greater Rochester Player of the Year who led the University of Vermont to the NCAA Tournament last season as a freshman, Lamb politely declined to be interviewed for this story. Estabrooks was uneasy about it, too. He led Victor to a Section V football title last fall and is a key player for the Blue Devils as they try to win a third straight state lacrosse title this week.
The young men’s gestures weren’t done for publicity. But Shelby’s parents, Tim and Shannon Hay, and Zack’s, Paul and Kirsten Estabrooks, think shining a light on a kindness by teens can only help.
“Hopefully, it will make other people do similar things to some other children in school who have special needs, as well,” said Tim Hay.
His has two sons, Tanner (junior) and Camden (freshman), who play with Estabrooks on Victor’s lacrosse team. The Blue Devils (17-3) play Section IV’s Vestal in Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. Class B state tournament semifinals at St. John Fisher College. Zack is Victor’s third-leading scorer with 30 goals.
Zack and Shelby met when he was playing youth lacrosse with her brothers. Out of the blue a few years later, Tim Hay remembers Shelby blurting out something about her “boyfriend.” He didn’t catch all of it the first time, so he asked for clarification, “and it’s been my boyfriend Zack Estabrooks for the past eight years,” Tim said with a smile.
“There are just special people that she’s drawn too,” Shannon Hay said about her bubbly daughter who is in the regular sixth-grade curriculum in Victor schools. “People Shelby gravitates toward are good people.”
Asked what makes Zack such a good guy, Shelby deadpanned, “His hair.”
He knows it’ a schoolgirl crush, but he also understands the impact every interaction has on her, including hugs she gives him after every game. “Now he goes right past us and hugs her first,” Zack’s father said with a smile.
“I knew if I asked her to ball it’d make her day,” said Zack, who wants to study special education in college with an eye toward a career in adaptive phys ed.
He brainstormed with his mother on how to ask. They made a prom-posal poster patterned after something they saw on Pinterest and he presented it Shelby after a May 24 win over Irondequoit. Once her parents explained what it actually meant, “she couldn’t stop smiling and laughing,” Zack said.
“My reaction was very exciting,” Shelby recalled said. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, Zack!’ It was really fun.”
There was some concern about how she’d handle not actually going to the “ball” part of the evening. But after a day of primping, posing for pictures and then hanging out at the pre-party as Zack’s date, she told her parents she was ready to leave for dinner.
“All Shelby needs are little things, gestures,” to make her happy, her mother said. “People don’t realize how special it makes a (special needs) child feel.”
Kirsten Estabrooks asked Zack once what he thought the pivotal moment was when Shelby developed her crush. It wasn’t one thing, he explained.
“It was just me talking to her and always saying, ‘Shelby, how are you?’ ” Kirsten recalled her son saying. “He thinks this is how everybody should be.”
Teens get a bad rap, Zack said. More positive things happen than people realize because so much bad stuff makes headlines.
“This something Shelby will never forget,” Shannon Hay said.
Colleen Hammell said the same about her daughter, who was “beaming and glowing, picture after picture,” before the ball on Saturday. She even stayed up a lot later than usual, but it was worth it. Alexandra and Lamb were named queen and king of the ball and her classmates roared as it was announced.
“Her nurse told me Anthony stayed by her side all night. He was there for her, a perfect gentleman,” Hammell said.
The 6-foot-6, 227-pound Lamb led Vermont last season in points (12.8), rebounds (5.5) and blocks (1.2) while shooting 51 percent overall and 40 percent from 3-point range. He was named America East’s Rookie of the Year and was MVP of the America East Tournament. The Catamounts will play St. Bonaventure at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial on Dec. 16.
Hammell and Lamb’s mother, Rachel, met last fall at their gym. Hammell had no idea who Anthony was, but a few weeks ago after she mentioned that one of Alexandra’s nurses thought it’d be great to find a date for the ball for her, Rachel Lamb spoke up.
“I know who’s going to take her,” Hammell recalled Lamb saying. “I’ll ask (Anthony).”
Colleen was anxious all week, worried that if Alexandra had a seizure it would prevent her from going. She has few each month and some can be grand mal seizures, which require fast action with medication and oxygen. Alexandra had one Sunday afternoon.
“I hope someday her seizures can be more controlled,” Colleen said, but it’s a worry that never goes away.
How do she and her husband Drew manage? “It is what it is, my husband says,” said Colleen. “You brush yourself off and get back up because you have to be there for (Alexandra).”
Their son Jack, a junior-to-be at McQuaid Jesuit, missed a soccer game on Saturday to make sure he saw his sister off to the ball. “She’s not going to have a wedding. This was her night,” Colleen said.
Rett syndrome almost exclusively affects females while they’re infants or toddlers. It’s often misdiagnosed as autism, cerebral palsy or some type of developmental delay, which was Alexandra’s initial diagnosis. Before that, she kept telling doctors she thought something was wrong because even though her baby was 9 months old Alexandra wasn’t sitting up. She also never crawled.
“Nervous new mom,” doctors told her.
Finally in 1999, the gene for Rett syndrome was discovered. “Alex communicates with her eyes and her smile,” Colleen says.
She was doing just that about two weeks ago when Lamb showed up at their house, red roses in hand, to do his prom-posal. “His heart is just huge,” Colleen said, adding that Lamb is an “old soul.”
“Everything was just beautiful (Saturday). The weather was beautiful. Everything was just so perfect.”