National Volunteer Week Spotlight: Valerie Ruiz

By Ashley Carney

The Sweetwater Union High School District in San Diego awarded Valerie Ruiz “Special Educator of the Year” for her tireless work and dedication toward getting the district involved with Special Olympics Unified Sports.

When Unified Sports was first introduced to the SUHSD in January 2016, Valerie was in the middle of a luncheon honoring her volleyball team’s trip to the state finals. It was a no-brainer for Valerie to get involved, as it was the perfect way to combine her two passions of teaching special education and coaching sports.

Sweetwater was the first Unified Champion School District to sign on with Special Olympics Southern California.

Special Olympics Unified Sports strives to unite people with and without intellectual disabilities, and to encourage inclusivity and new friendships. All 13 of the SUHSD high schools compete in the five Unified Sports games offered across the district, and Valerie noted the positive impact it has had on the community.

Among the schools is Southwest High School, which will compete in Unified soccer this summer at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.

“The Unified Athletes state they have more friends and they have someone to hang out at lunch with,” she says. “The Unified Partners now have a better understanding of individuals with disabilities and show more compassion and empathy.”

To Valerie, the best part about Unified Sports is that everyone gets to be on the same team, so it doesn’t matter whether you have an intellectual disability or not. Because of Unified Sports, the schools and students have learned so much more about inclusion and respect.

“I have coached in our district for 15 years and Unified Games are way more exciting,” Valerie said.

Valerie was honored and humbled to receive the award, as she sat amongst a room full of accomplished teachers at the SELPA Art Show and Awards Ceremony.

“I hope that the award brought awareness to the other districts present and I hope that it shows others how sports really brings kids together,” she said.

While Valerie sees herself as just a coach, the movement has made a positive impact on the students.

“I can only tell you of the ‘lump in the throat’ experience of seeing a student – for the first time ever – being cheered on by a gymnasium filled with his or her peers,” said Ronald A. Lopez, SUHSD Director of Special Services.

“It takes a spark to light a fire, and Valerie has certainly been the spark to get Unified Sports off the ground.”


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