The Summer of 2018 is one that Jacob Solorio, hopefully, will never forget.

But in case he does, his mother Imelda said this was a summer she will always remember.

Solorio, age 7, is a Down Syndrome child, meaning he has a genetic disorder (caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21) that is known to affect physical growth, facial features and intellectual development.

According to his mom, Solorio — the youngest of seven children to Imelda, a healthcare assistant with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Abraham, a welder — has not been an eager participant in many organized youth sports beyond some in Special Olympics. The family, which lives on the geographical border that separates Sylmar and the City of San Fernando, had contacted several summer recreational basketball league coaches to see if they would consider adding Solorio to their team. The reception seemed lukewarm at best.

Until they contacted Richard Arellano who coaches 7- and 8-year-olds at the Sylmar Recreational Center. He eagerly embraced Solorio being a part of the team, even if it took all summer for Solorio to believe it himself.

“Everybody deserves a chance,” said Arellano, adding he has a sister with special needs after a serious accident left her in a wheelchair.

The season for Arellano’s team began in June and ended in August. The overall record was three wins and five losses. But the biggest victory, Arellano said, was not on the court.

It was Solorio being on the bench.

It was the first time Solorio was on an organized sports bench, surrounded by teammates he could cheer for, and who in turn were willing to treat him as a teammate. Solorio began the season watching the team play from the stands with his family. But as the season progressed, he joined the rest of the players on the bench and sat next to Arellano.

Everyone who knows Solorio says it was a breakthrough.

“My son is not very tall, maybe 52 inches,” Imelda said. “Other kids could be more aggressive toward him, and it makes him scared. But the coaches [at Sylmar] were willing to work with him. They wanted him to be part of the team.”

Solorio would practice with the team. He would even take shots at the basket and make some — but only in practice. He would take part in the pre-game warmup routines. But that was as far as Solorio would go.

Arellano said the other players would engage Solorio in practice and encouraged him to shoot. “I had a great group of kids. They interacted with him, and it happened naturally. They called him by his name and passed the ball to him. He would run to the free throw line and shoot. And he would make one and earn a slice of  pizza.

“At first the loud [game] noise in gym was rough on him. But toward end of season he was not covering his ears. I talked with him during the game and told his family I would do the best I could to get him to play.”

But, ultimately, that was something Solorio was not ready to try. 

“I understood that he didn’t want to go out. But I think he took a step in the right direction by being part of the team. Any type of involvement would be a breakthrough with Jacob,” the coach said.

“My son is always attached to me, but eventually he could sit with the team and cheer them on,” Imelda said. “But he was not comfortable playing. The coaches and director of the park were adamant of not wanting children to be afraid and told me they would play when they are ready. I was very appreciative.”

The best was yet to come. At the recent team banquet, Solorio was given a trophy along with the other players.

“Being part of a team makes [children like Solorio] feel special, and when he got his trophy it was emotional,” Imelda said. “[Kids like him] are a part of society. And if we don’t allow them to be exposed to things like this … I want to say I am very grateful. The joy I have I can’t really be put into words.”

Arellano said he also benefited from the experience.

“It was a great, wonderful feeling to know he was part of something,” Arellano said of Solorio. “And I would do it again. I would like to be more understanding about kids. But if I was put in that position again, I’d be more than happy to take ‘em on.”

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