After the medals were draped around their necks, the team photos at center ice were snapped by enthusiastic parents, and the Indy Twisters players and coaches began gathering their gear, someone shouted, “Thank you, Special K!”
The shout-out was directed to senior Kelsi Carr (Kitchener, Ontario), who organized the four-team special needs hockey tournament – complete with three games each over two days, team meals, T-shirts, campus tours, medals, and a dance – over the March 8-9 weekend. Teams from her hometown, Detroit, and Indianapolis traveled to Culver to play in the round-robin event.
The Kitchener Ice Pirates are coached by Carr’s mother, Kirsten, who works with autistic children. Every year Kitchener hosts a special needs hockey tournament that draws teams from across Canada, the United States, and Europe. That is what Carr, who plays on the Culver Girls Academy hockey team, used as a model.
Carr has grown up working with special needs children. She has helped her mother since she was in middle school. During the summer, she was assigned to work with one autistic boy at a day camp for three years. By the final summer he was playing soccer, hockey, and swimming.
Those hands-on experiences, and the lessons she learned, has given her a perspective and patience beyond her years. “I was raised that just because someone looks differently or acts differently, you shouldn’t treat them differently,” she said. “It is something I’m very passionate about. It has become a part of me. It has become personal.”
And, while Carr wanted to provide a competitive outlet for the special needs players, she also wanted other Culver students to immerse themselves in the experience of working with these athletes. Several students and hockey coaches donated their time and equipment to make it a weekend to remember for the players. Students made posters for the teams, served as chaperones, came to the dance, and worked during the games. Others donated hockey sticks, which were a special prize for the players.
“Some of the kids went home with new Warrior sticks,” Carr said, which thrilled them. When most of the players’ equipment is used, she explained, something like a new stick quickly becomes a cherished possession.
The feedback from the Culver students equaled that of the players. In particular, she heard from the chaperones who took some of the players over to visit the horses at the Vaughn Equestrian Center. The students were amazed at how the horses and players connected so quickly.
“Horses seem to have an innate sense when it comes to special needs kids,” Carr said. “They were very calm, lowered their heads and let the kids pet them. I heard it was pretty special.”
Along with the Culver students’ experiences, Carr also wanted parents to have time to interact with each other. Getting parents to come is why she wanted to stay with teams from Indiana and the surrounding states. “I wanted the parents to come, meet each other, and talk. That’s important, too.”
Carr hopes that all the memories and emotions translate into a group of students stepping up and taking over the tournament for next year. “You really need three or four people,” she said. She is more than willing to share all her notes and the list of all “the amazing people – people I’ve never met – who were willing to help me.” If the tournament becomes an annual event, she would love to come back and assist as often as possible.
As for the “Special K” moniker, Carr said one of the Twisters coaches started calling her that over the weekend.
“I don’t know how he came up with that,” she said, “But I kind of like it.”