Drawing up a plan: Shoot 2 Change continues a special cause

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

With fans cheering loudly to his left and right, Parker Powell stood next to his dad at the beginning of a raucous tunnel of people watching as his older brother Dane ran through the sea of people giving out high fives to both sides. Hardly able to contain his excitement, Parker started jumping up and down clapping with a grin from ear to ear, before the public address announcer came over the speaker.

“And now,” he roared. “At guard, No. 2, Parker Powell.”

Like the colorful puzzle pieces connected along the sides of Thompson’s uniform during the game, that moment was about being inclusive. A puzzle that requires everyone, including those with special needs like Parker Powell.

Back in 2014, at the age of 2, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which sent his family on a roller coaster ride of emotions that have sense turned into a cause sending shockwaves across the state.

A scary diagnosis 

At that time, Dru Powell was the head basketball coach at Spanish Fort High School, where he and the Toros were seeing success. With two kids at the time, he and his wife, Jenilee, were in a happy stage of life, but nothing prepared them for what was about to happen.

“When Parker was 2, he wasn’t meeting the same bench marks as his older brother Dane,” Dru Powell said.

At first, the parents thought it may just be a hearing problem. They loaded Parker up and took him to UAB to check that out, but the doctors at UAB shared the news that it could be a cognitive disorder.

“That was the first time we were exposed to the word autism in relation to our child,” Dru Powell said.

Shortly after seeing a specialist in Mobile, Parker was officially diagnosed with ASD, putting him on the autism spectrum.

“You’re scared, curious, anxious,” Powell said. “We had all these different plans and dreams for our children and what their futures would look like. Then, you’re sat down in a chair and told your son has autism and question a lot.”

Doing research to try and piece together what it meant for their family and most importantly their son, Dru and Jenilee couldn’t help but have negative thoughts pop into their heads.

“Will they be married, will they leave home, will they be bullied, will they hold a steady job? There are a million different things that run through your mind,” Powell said. “The most important thing we can do is work to help our child at that point, and we decided it wasn’t something we wanted to hide behind.”

‘Shooting 2 Change’ 

Quickly shifting their focus from “What will happen?” to “What can we do to help?” the Powells searched for a way to bring awareness to autism and the social issues that surround it.

As a head basketball coach, Dru Powell reached out to Baldwin-County based Project Outreach, a program that helps connect students with disabilities together with their non-disabled peers for the betterment of both groups. He knew that was perfect to help bring awareness to autism.

That’s when Shooting 2 Change was born.

“Being in Baldwin County at the time, there were seven high schools, so I was planning to print seven shirts and have the local head coaches wear them,” Dru Powell said. “Scott Parks at Project Outreach scratched that and said let’s do it statewide.”

Similar to Coaches vs. Cancer at the college level, he had shirts printed that said Shoot 2 Change on them and shared them across the state with other coaches.

“We emailed boys and girls coaches throughout the state asking if they would wear the shirt, and if they said yes, we mailed them a free shirt,” Dru Powell said. “Some of the schools would even request more to sell to students and parents as well.

“Our goal was to have people asking why they are wearing those shirts instead of wearing the typical suit and tie or team gear.”

Now the head coach of the Thompson Warriors six years later, the event is still going strong and growing each year despite Powell being 200-plus miles north of where it originated.

An idea that started with seven shirts saw 200 coaches across the state wear the Shooting 2 Change shirts during this year’s event, and it will soon be featured at the collegiate level in a game between Troy and South Alabama on Friday, Feb. 7.

“It’s been special to watch it grow,” he said. “We had around 1,000 shirts printed this year between coaches and fans, which was cool to see.”

The impact

Now six years after he was diagnosed, it’s not just the impact Shooting 2 Change has had, but the impact Parker Powell and others with special needs have had.

“A lot of times we think it’s about impacting those with special needs, but more times than not, they impact us,” Dru Powell said. “The impact it has had on my players and the program is really cool to see. We’ve helped with social awareness. That has the biggest impact on families.”

During this year’s event, not only were those kids to the left and right of Parker fellow kids with special needs, but they cheerleaders and players on the team as well.

They all came together as one to celebrate friendships and bring awareness to autism and what families with kids who have special needs go through on a daily basis, while also breaking down social barriers.

“It was a special night,” Dru Powell said. “We had 30 kids with special needs and had a VIP room set up, had them run out on the court, sign autographs, sing the national anthem, shoot the ball around at halftime. It was just special for everyone involved.”

The main goal of the night and creating Shoot 2 Change was to create acceptance for those with special needs.

“It impacts so many people across the state, and we’re just trying to reach our goal of raising awareness,” Dru Powell said. “A lot of times people don’t realize what people with ASD go through on a daily basis. For people to realize that is important to all the families involved because of what they go through every day. It’s a comforting feeling to know that others understand what you are going through instead of judging you or your kids.”

For Parker, his “super power” is to not shy away from his autism, and it’s left a lasting impact on his parents.

At first worried about what his life would be like after first hearing the diagnosis, now it’s about the lasting impact he has left on their lives.

“He’s taught us so much,” Dru Powell said. “We enter relationships with special needs kids thinking we can help them, but he’s changed my wife and our whole family for the better. He’s such a funny kid, and he’s taught us more than we can ever teach him: compassion, love and patience. We’re very, very thankful.”