‘Choose to Include – No Matter What’

CHULA VISTA – Students at Olympian High School had a packed gymnasium rocking, cheering on fellow classmates during a Special Olympics Unified basketball game.

“Choose to include – no matter what!” was the chant, as the force of the growing “inclusion revolution” promoted by the organization’s Unified Champion Schools program continues to sweep the nation.

Unified Sports brings together individuals with and without intellectual disabilities, allowing them the opportunity to compete alongside and against one another.

The school visit was part of a four-day Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools national conference from Feb. 5-8 in San Diego County. Attendees included staff members, coaches and educators involved with Special Olympics programs around the country, as well as a handful from overseas programs including China and Kenya. In all, more than 500 delegates made the trip, including more than 100 from host Southern California.

The school visit featured athletes and Unified partners from 10 schools in the area’s Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), which was the first Unified Champion School District to partner with Special Olympics Southern California. Other schools in attendance included: East Hills High School, Eastlake Middle School, Eastlake High School, Hilltop Middle School, Hilltop High School, Otay Ranch High School, Rancho del Rey Middle School, Southwest High School and Sweetwater High School.

Schools that earn the Unified Champion School designation demonstrate inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement, and provide inclusive sports opportunities.

In addition to the basketball game, the day also included Unified demonstrations in cheerleading, soccer and CrossFit.

For students like Rob Repass, who competes for Special Olympics San Diego County and attends Eastlake High School, the Unified Champion Schools program has led to an abundance of opportunities.

“I lettered in cross country, I am the chess club president, and I was this year’s homecoming king,” the 17-year-old said.

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Other notable attendees included Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver and ESPN reporter Michele Steele.

While looking out on the soccer field, Shriver couldn’t help but think back to the origins of Special Olympics, which was started 50 years ago by his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

“This looks a lot like when Special Olympics began,” he said. “We were on tracks, in swimming pools, on playing fields, and here we are again.

“We’ve got a community joined together, volunteers and professionals, Special Olympics athletes and their peers. In some ways, we’re still in our roots, and in other ways instead of having one or two events a year, we’re having hundreds and thousands.

“The fact that we’re being welcomed, celebrated and integrated into the life of schools is a huge shift. It wasn’t long ago that kids with special needs were not even welcomed in schools, at all. … Our brothers and sisters who have differences are people who can teach the invaluable lessons that can’t otherwise be taught about the importance of human dignity, the importance of respect, and the importance of belonging to something larger than yourself.”

Shriver moderated a panel featuring: Dr. Karen Janney (SUHSD Superintendent), Dr. Joe Fulcher (assistant Superintendent of equity, culture and student services), Ron Lopez (former SUHSD director of special services), Dr. Ricardo Cooke (Eastlake Middle School principal), Sasha Scott (Olympian High School dean of student affairs), Vanessa Meyers (CIF San Diego), Manuel Tapia (Southwest High School athletic director), Lee Romero (former Southwest High School principal), Joe Heinz (SUHSD athletic director), and Valerie Ruiz (SUHSD Unified Champion Schools coordinator).

Ruiz ignited the district’s involvement when she moved from Olympian High School to the SUHSD office, and various others on the panel spoke from the experience and change they’ve seen in the campus atmosphere since incorporating Unified Sports. Their words touched on a number of benefits and tips to Special Olympics programs seeking ways to bring more schools aboard in their respective regions of the country:

If we have high faith and high expectations in kids, they’re going to rise to the occasion. Start small – whether it’s one game, one assembly – then build from there and watch it take off.

“It’s just been exponentially growing,” Janney said. “When we hear from the students, they feel it’s opened their eyes, it’s opened their minds and created more empathy.”

Steele, who addressed the crowd before and after the basketball game, is among the media outlet’s many on-air personalities who have helped bring Special Olympics into the mainstream spotlight.

ESPN is the official broadcast partner and presenting sponsor of Unified Sports, and the relationship with Special Olympics spans more than 30 years. Special Olympics athletes, such as Southern California’s Dustin Plunkett, have served as on-air World Games analysts for ESPN’s broadcasts in recent years.

“You can see the difference that it makes in people who are 13 and 14 years old, starting out their high school experience,” Steele said about the impact of Unified Sports. “It’s so important to get those values exposed to them before they reach college, before they leave the home.

“When you’re growing up, that’s the time that you should be exposed to new things and new people and acceptance of others.”

On this day, the youth gave a strong showing of what the future can look like with just a little more inclusion and an investment from schools into the Play Unified movement.

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