ISHPEMING - The Dompierre family and the Ishpeming Public Schools received a civil rights award Friday for their campaign last year to change Michigan High School Athletic Association rules to make high school sports more accessible for Michigan students with disabilities.
Members from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights presented Dean Dompierre and the Ishpeming Public Schools with a Civil Rights Leadership Award during a brief stop at Ishpeming High School Friday morning.
MDCR Interim Executive Director Leslee Fritz said that their small group - which is currently finishing up a 50-city tour in celebration of the department's 50th anniversary - couldn't pass through Ishpeming without stopping in and showing their gratitude to the Dompierres and the Ishpeming community for the work they did to "change things for the better for kids with disabilities in our state."
Michigan Department of Civil Rights Strategic Partnership Coordinator Mark Bishop, far left, and MDCR Interim Executive Director Leslee Fritz, second from right, present Dean Dompierre, second from left, and Ishpeming Public Schools Business Manager Tony Bertucci, far right, with a Civil Rights Leadership Award to the Dompierre family and Ishpeming schools Friday morning for their 'tireless efforts to achieve fairness and equity through sports in Michigan.' (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Dompierre and his son Eric spent two and a half years challenging a MHSAA age limitation rule which said that any student who turned 19 on or before Sept. 1 was ineligible to participate in school sports. Eric, who has Down syndrome, turned 19 prior to the start of the 2012 football season - but ultimately got to sport his blue and white Hematites jersey senior year after the MHSAA finally voted overwhelmingly to allow him to submit an application for an age waiver in June 2012, and granted his waiver in August.
"I feel like I'm accepting this on behalf of the tens of thousands of people who helped us out along the way," Dean Dompierre said. "The 90-some thousand who signed the online petition, and the countless people who sent letters and emails to legislators and MHSAA leadership and such - they're really the ones who got this done for us. We're proud of those people and we're proud to receive this award."
Fritz also recognized the strength of community involvement in pushing for change. "It takes families, it takes individuals, it takes businesses, it takes entities like school districts to stand up..." she said. "And it happens one kid, one family, one community at a time."
Fritz said that all too often the department is called in to a school district or other public entities because "something has gone wrong."
"It's great to recognize things that have gone right," she said.
Dompierre said he had only learned about the award Thursday. "It's an honor," he said. "When it was happening, I was originally doing it just for my son. Then it took on kind of a bigger role. So I hoped we helped a lot of people."
The Dompierres long battle to allow Eric to play was documented in an episode of Sports Illustrated's "Underdogs" online video series. The Dompierre episode - titled "The Heart of the Team" - won the online voting contest, and as a prize, the Ishpeming High School athletic department received a $25,000 grant and the football team received an invitation for 10 players to fly to New York City, all expenses paid, to attend SI's "Sportsman of the Year" event.
The 2012 season culminated with the Hematites winning the Division 7 state championship, and when the football team decided to charter a bus so they could all travel to New York City together, Eric was among the jubilant state champs.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org