He left his post behind the snack bar at Chaparral High, and Maria Rittenberg saw her son sitting not in the home bleacher but in the visitors’ bleacher, striking up conversation with everyone he could find.
“That’s my sister over there, number 16,” Sebastian Rittenberg said, gesturing towards Bella Rittenberg, the standout from Chaparral who has dedicated herself to the University of Pennsylvania’s volleyball program. “You have to cheer them on!”
Why would they cheer for Bella? They were visiting fans. But there was no stopping Sebastian, Bella’s 22-year-old brother with autism, who loves his sister dearly and has never been afraid to show it.
When their grandmother died when they were younger, there was Bella sitting with Sebastian watching her favorite movie, The Sleeping Beauty. As he fell and cut his knee, there was Bella taking him to her mother. When he was attacked in a first class bathroom and Maria was telling the story of a boy who had punched and kicked Sebastian and ripped his shirt off, there was a young Bella who asked, “Why?”
“My yin, my yang,” Sebastian said of Bella. “My guardian angel.”
How she shaped them, the Chaparral elder and misfit was shaped by her family — “little ducks,” said her mother, who do everything together. Bella has five siblings, four adopted, four with special needs. Last season, before Chaparral was eliminated in a Southern Section Division II playoff game by the San Juan Hills on Thursday, her family was the biggest cheering group at most home games, dancing for her sister, the team captain, like nobody was looking.
It will be difficult to leave her when she goes to Penn. You’ve given Bella a unique perspective on volleyball – and life in general.
“A lot of people would get mad at someone if they kept screwing up or they weren’t doing well,” Rittenberg said. “But I wouldn’t…we’re all human. I think I learned that from my family.”
There’s Sebastian, who lives loudly. There’s Harley, the caring 28-year-old who met Maria at age 16 through a court-ordered special counsel program. There’s helpful 18-year-old Nathaniel, who suffers from epilepsy; friendly 17-year-old Natalie, who has an intellectual disability; doting 15-year-old Naudia, who has developmental delays, adopts all three siblings at once.
It’s an “Insta family,” Maria calls it. While it’s not always easy, they touched Chaparral’s community, coach Gale Johnson’s fondest memories of the season as they saw her cheering in the stands.
“It’s not like we’re going to drink lemonade,” Maria said, referring to the saying when life gives you lemons. “We’re going to make lemon tinis because if we live this life, we’re going to make it a party.”
Maria got Bella started in volleyball to make sure her daughter doesn’t “get lost in the mess” while she takes care of Sebastian. And welcoming four more siblings may have seemed difficult.
But Bella always wanted a bigger family. She’s always been proud of having siblings with special needs, Maria said — when she was younger she would orchestrate intricate dance productions with costumes and wigs and choreographies, throwing her arm around her brothers and sisters at school and waving to them in the stands to.
Now don’t mistake her for a softie on the hardwood. A “brutal” misfit, as Sebastian described with a smile, Bella unleashes a mighty punch. As a leader, however, she brings a more caring attitude.
“Some people get so down when they make mistakes or when things go wrong … but I feel like she has that different perspective,” Johnson said. “That way her lows never get too deep because she understands what life is about.”
On October 12, the team’s senior night game against Great Oak, seniors and their families were greeted onto the field one by one and emerged from under a balloon arch to applause. When it was Bella’s turn, she and her family took a few steps – only for Sebastian to strut forward, waving his arms and blowing extravagant kisses at the crowd like the star at the end of a play.
Nothing on earth and Bella wouldn’t want it any other way. Sebastian is all himself and her family is all himself and she loves it because it has made her who she is.
“Even if it’s different [it’s] amazing and I’m very fortunate to have the parents and siblings that I have,” said Bella.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/highschool/story/2022-10-23/chaparral-high-volleyball-bella-rittenberg-siblings-with-special-needs Chaparral High’s Bella Rittenberg carries unique perspective in volleyball