It was evident pretty quickly to Kim Hanlon that having high school students help out the Cape Elizabeth Special Olympics basketball team was making a difference.

“Right away we noticed that the students actually do better when the high school kids coach them,” said Hanlon, one of Cape’s Special Olympics coordinators. “It’s exciting for them to have real mentors and peers teaching them the game. It makes all the difference in the world.”

A number of students – many of them just coming off seasons as members of the Capers boys and girls varsity basketball teams – have come to the twice-a-week practices, leading the Special Olympians in drills and scrimmages.

“I’m here just to give back to the community and the kids and the school system,” said junior Kathryn King. “It’s a lot of fun to see the kids so happy, and it’s a really great opportunity to get to know a lot of people who have the same interests as I do. It’s very rewarding.”

Last week the Cape gym was filled with the sounds of basketballs bouncing and young people laughing. At one end, the team – which is coached by Maureen Messer and Susan Pillsbury – worked on passing, while at the other, the players worked on defense.

“It makes me feel good that I’m helping out with these kids, and they really enjoy it,” said Samantha Culver, a Cape junior. “They all know my name and it’s so much better. I feel like I know more kids in the school. It doesn’t matter that they’re not in my grade. It’s nice to know them.”

The Capers got to put their skills to the test Sunday, when they took part in a Special Olympics regional basketball tournament at USM. A total of 27 teams participated and Cape finished in third place in the senior division.

“We have never had a team in the past because its been difficult to pull all the numbers of kids together,” said Hanlon, “but this year the kids are highly motivated and have been working on their skills throughout the week.”

Sophomore Shane Burks said that the players are “fast learners” and that he enjoys taking part in the practices.

“It’s so much fun. I think its more fun for us than it is for them,” Burks said. “Some of them make these faces like they don’t want to do it, but after it’s all done they all have happy faces.”

Joel Spadinger, a member of the team, said that he has been playing basketball all his life.

“(The students who are helping) are really cool,” said the 18-year-old. “Shane is the best guy ever.”

Hanlon, who works with Karen Johnson to organize the various Cape Special Olympics activities, feels that by volunteering their time the mainstream students get a totally different view of the special needs students.

“I think it speaks to empathy, compassion and helping them to understand that our students – although they have delayed skills and don’t play on regular sports teams – have abilities. They are competitive. They want to do this and they want to win, just like any other student.”

In many ways, the volunteers benefit just as much as the Special Olympians.

“I think that we get real-world experience from this,” said Culver. “It shows that the world isn’t perfect, but we’re going to have to deal with this, and it will help us out in the long run, being able to work with all different kinds of people.”