OAKLAND — Gym teacher Joe Hayward positioned his wheelchair on the sidelines and urged a team of second graders to spread out during a heated game of kickball.
The 42-year-old athletic director at St. Augustine's School in Oakland teaches kickball, running, softball, volleyball and even how to throw a Frisbee, all while staying in his wheelchair.
But the lesson he has instilled in 12-year-old Sheena Gordon goes beyond how to perform 100 jumping jacks.
"Before I thought that people in wheelchairs couldn't do what other people do," said Gordon, one of 234 students who attend the 70-year-old Roman Catholic school. "I don't think that now, because I have a gym teacher in a wheelchair. It doesn't make any difference."
Hayward is a former Golden Gate Bridge toll taker who volunteered in his off time coaching school sports events in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1976, Hayward contracted chicken pox from a student and developed a fever that damaged his spinal cord nerves and left him paralyzed from the waist down.
"I thought my life was over," Hayward said. "For years I just sat around feeling sorry for myself."
Beginning in 1981, with encouragement from a wheelchair-bound friend, be became the school's softball coach.
Last fall, he was hired to teach three 50-minute gym classes each day and to coach St. Augustine's basketball, volleyball, baseball and track teams.
"Working with these children has improved my outlook and made me a healthier person," said Hayward. "Sometimes when I'm not feeling well, it's tough. But I get to work and forget about my pain. It's like the love from the children makes it go away."
School Principal Kathleen Bell called Hayward a "special gift" to the school.
"He is such a marvelous lesson for the children because he teaches them that no matter what, everyone has something they can contribute," said Bell. "He doesn't allow the wheelchair to stand as a barrier. He sets very high standards and refuses to abbreviate life."
Bell hopes to equip the school with more wheelchair ramps at $4,000 each so Hayward can move more easily around the school, a building not easily accessible to the disabled.
"It's a blessing to be able to do this," Hayward said. "A lot of people don't know what their purpose in life is, but I know mine is being here with these children."