For eight hours every weekday at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center, she’s simply known as “PO Sully.”
But on the weekends, to a group of young adults on the basketball court, she goes by a slightly different name: “Coach Sully.”
For the past decade, Katie Sullivan has helped coach a basketball team of 10-14 young adults with special needs for the Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games. The team, dubbed the Juneau Rebounders, practices once a week for close to three months in the spring to prepare for the June event. The Games attracted six different teams this year, and like the past three summers, the Juneau Rebounders took home the gold medal, defeating Tanana Valley Hawks 30-25 in the championship.
Sullivan lights up whenever she talks about the team.
“It’s just a little reality check to count my blessings,” Sullivan said.
The 58-year-old moved to Juneau 30 years ago and has spent the vast majority of that time in corrections. Sullivan spent over 15 years working at Johnson Youth Center before joining the LCCC staff in 2008 as a parole officer.
Sullivan’s desire to help others was fostered by her parents at a young age while growing up in Hayward, California. Her father, Gene, an elementary school principal, integrated hearing-impaired students into his school upon the closure of a deaf school.
“When he would do Christmas concerts or something, everybody’s up there signing, you couldn’t tell who’s hearing-impaired and who’s not because everybody learned to sign at his school,” Sullivan said.
Her mother, Dorothy, taught a neighbor with intellectual difficulties how to read in her spare time.
“You just meet other people that struggle with something and you go, ‘Maybe I can help them out,’” Sullivan said.
While working at the Johnson Youth Center, Sullivan heard about the Special Olympics basketball team from a coworker and decided to get involved. It was a good fit. Not only did Sullivan understand the game — she played two years of college basketball — she was also well-versed in adaptive physical education. After studying recreational therapy at Chico State University, Sullivan worked in Santa Clara schools teaching adaptive PE.
“So that’s where it kind of got a little bit more (about) skills versus just having fun and play ball,” Sullivan said.
With a focus on skill-building, it wasn’t long before the team found success at the Summer Games.
“I remember the first year and then it’s like, ‘OK, let’s work harder,’ and then we got a bronze,” Sullivan said. “I know one year we got a gold and the next year we went to a silver and I’m like, ‘It’s OK, things happen, and we can just keep working.’ And then we’ve got the four golds in a row.”
In a testament to Sullivan’s work with the team, many of the players come back every year. Matt Jones’ son and daughter, Andres and Carmen Jones, have been playing for “Coach Sully” for about the past eight years.
“She totally does a great job of taking people’s skills wherever they’re at and building on their skills and encouraging them,” Matt Jones said.
Sullivan doesn’t mind being a little strict on the players if she needs to, benching a player if they ball-hog. But that’s just because she’s looking out for the whole team.
Regan Tweedy, Sullivan’s coworker for the past 25 years, said her friend is a perfect fit for Special Olympics.
“When you’re working with someone with special abilities, you can’t always have those real firm boundaries because it’s not a level playing field,” Tweedy said. “So she gets more out of these athletes than probably anyone else could because she has that compassionate heart. I think most of her is heart. If you were to weigh out (Sully): ‘OK, there’s skin, there’s some other stuff, but she’s got such a big heart.”
Whether it’s working with inmates or Special Olympic athletes, Sullivan knows that change doesn’t happen overnight. Thus, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to offer positive reinforcement.
“I enjoy corrections because you can see some change in folks,” Sullivan said. “We all have some tough times in our lives. We’re all good people, some of us just make poor choices and struggle for a bit but you can get better.”