10/30/2014 10:00 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST

Wheelchair-bound students get level playing field in Grand-Digue, N.B.

Physical education teacher Rhéal Hébert of Grande-Digue, N.B., has gone an extra step to see that all students get moving in his classes.

When Hebert had two students with muscular dystrophy in his École Grande-Digue class — Renelle Belliveau and her older sister — he realized they weren't getting as much physical activity as the other students.

"They still had their everyday wheelchair," said Hebert.

"They were being pushed around by the teacher's assistant, and that's when it really hit me that we have to do something about that, because everybody's moving and they're not. And that's not OK."

Hébert applied for a grant last year to purchase two wheelchairs designed for use in sports. They have a wide wheelbase and can turn on a dime.

"From one day to the other, it was such a huge difference," said Hébert.

"I knew from that point we had to go further, and we had to explore para sports at school."

Hébert wanted to do more than just have Renelle play with the other Grade 8 students.

He wanted the other students to be able to play with her. So Hébert borrowed about half a dozen sports wheelchairs from a club in Moncton that could be used by able-bodied students.

Now, Renelle and her friends have a level playing field: everyone's on wheels.

"It's really fun, because they feel what I felt when I was in a wheelchair and I played sports, and they like it very much," said Renelle, who was voted class president this year.

"They're very good at it."

​The class is currently doing court sports like badminton. They've also played sledge hockey, basketball and track and field.

Janie Cormier participates in para sports regularly at the school now that the sports chairs are available.

"She used to do things by herself with only her in a wheelchair, but now we get to do it with her, so we can see like how she got used to it and all that stuff," said Janie.

"So it's really nice."

Award-winning program

Hébert's Sports Plus program is exposing students to para sports and recreation activities. It has grown from a pilot project involving two schools three years ago and now operates in eight schools.

Ability New Brunswick honoured Hébert this year with its Para Sport and Recreation Award.

"Rhéal strongly believes that all students deserve the same opportunities at school," states Ability NB's award citation for Hébert.

Lynn Belliveau, Renelle's mother, says she appreciates what the physical education teacher has done for the family.

"It's getting them to be able to do stuff that I didn't imagine they'd be able to do and obviously as a mom, I'm really happy that they get that opportunity," said Belliveau.

Belliveau has installed a basketball hoop at the home where her daughters and their friends can play.

"It's important to them," said Belliveau. "Even though you have a disability, it's not going to stop you from doing what you want, and that's what I want them to learn from that. I mean, you thought you weren't able to participate in sports, but now you can."

Renelle also knows she has a teacher who has gone above and beyond what's expected. But she's never told him so.

"I never really thanked him because like, I get nervous and I just, like — I don't want to start crying because it really means so much to me."