Special Olympics athlete of the year wins hearts of teachers

At shortstop, wearing a red jersey with a black No. 3, Kevin Roundtree is ready for the ball.

Florida’s Special Olympics athlete of the year stomps and stares down the batters in blue until one finally hits a grounder. He scoops it up, pivots, and throws it hard to first.

It is a scorching October morning, the sun blowing briskly from the southwest, and Roundtree loves where he’s at — outdoors and playing for the TMH Stars from Southridge High School . For the 21-year-old special needs student long known as Little K, the best place to be is on the softball diamond or the soccer field.

Earlier this year, Roundtree beat out 23,000 other Special Olympians, including 3,000 from Miami-Dade alone, to be named the organization’s athlete of the year. He was picked for his sportsmanship and athleticism, but also because he “embodies everything we stand for,” says Linsey Harris Smith, director of Special Olympics Florida in Miami-Dade. “He’s been involved with the games for a long time and he has shown leadership.”

Along with the award, he got another honor — a fitting new nickname: Special K.

“He is beyond special,” says Jodi English, one of his teachers and a Special Olympics coach.

Kevin Roundtree beat big odds just to get on the field. Intellectually disabled, he is the youngest of six brothers, four of whom were also classified as special needs students . Both his parents are dead. When his mother, Elaine Davis Roundtree, died of AIDS 11 years ago, Roundtree and four of the older boys were taken in by their mother’s sister, Virginia Dassaw. They call her Auntie Gin.

Roundtree knows his numbers, but he can’t read. He can trace letters and he does that as he does everything else — with an enthusiasm that has won the hearts of those who have known him since he was young.

“He’s independent, he’s a self starter and a great role model,” says English, who first met Roundtree when he was 9 years old. “You don’t have to tell him what to do.”

Roundtree’s speech is difficult to understand — but his smile isn’t. And there’s no mistaking his attitude.

“He’s a go-getter and he always wants to get better,” says Geri Cordell, another teacher. “Some kids will just go along and do the minimum. Not Kevin. He always wants to do more.”

If asked, Roundtree will say what he likes: “Softball. Soccer. Stock shelves. Making coffee.”

Yes, making coffee. Roundtree, teachers say, is not only good on the field; he also brews a mean cup of joe. He’s the boss at the school’s Five Star Café, where teachers order breakfast and lunch made by students in Southridge’s exceptional student education program. The café is part of a special curriculum that trains students for jobs in the outside world.

Roundtree knows who takes coffee black and who wants extra cream. Wearing a white apron, black jeans and red sneakers, hairnet gripping his head, he delivers orders around the school, acknowledging greetings from students and security guards. At the main office, he gets a hug from Principal Bianca Calzadilla.

“We love him,” she said. “If we could clone him, we would.”

As part of his job-training program, Roundtree also stocks shelves at a Publix. “He may not be able to read,” Cordell says, “but he matches the numbers on the barcodes to the cans. He’s the first in line and gets the work done.”

This doesn’t surprise Dassaw, his Auntie Gin. She says Roundtree is now doing some of the cooking at home. “He always has a smile on his face,” she says.

On the field, Roundtree has been competing in Special Olympics since middle school.

At Southridge High for seven years, he’s led the TMH (which stands for trainable mentally handicapped) Stars to softball and soccer team gold medals two years in a row at the state games in Orlando. In soccer, he scored six goals in the last two state tournaments and he won the individual state bocce championship and the individual skills competition in basketball. He practices at least twice a week, sometimes three, with his teams.

Anthony Fadelle, his softball coach, can’t say enough good things about him. This year — Roundtree’s last at Southridge High — Fadelle is looking for him to be a leader. Half of the 10 kids on the softball team are rookies. “He just loves to play and it shows.”

Because disabled students can stay in the public school system only until they’re 22, Special K will graduate next spring. He has a scholarship to Our Pride Academy, a center for people with developmental disabilities in Southwest Dade. If he doesn’t attend, his teachers would like him to land a job somewhere.

“I don’t want him sitting on a couch watching TV,” English says. “He can do so much. He’d be an asset anywhere he goes.”