DOWNEY, Calif. – Neil Everett walked onto the stage on the Justice Stadium football field at Warren High School, unzipped his jacket and revealed a navy T-shirt with the words “The Cave” – an ode to the school’s student section.
The 4,000 students in attendance roared in approval, engulfing the ESPN SportsCenter anchor with the kind of love and support that the campus was being honored for last Tuesday.
Everett and special guest Michelle Kwan, the former Olympic figure skater, were on hand to present the school with a Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools national banner and announce it was an ESPN Top-5 Unified Champion School among the 30 in the inaugural class of ESPN Honor Rolls schools. The selection was officially made last September, as Warren High School demonstrated whole-school engagement and inclusion as defined by 10 national standards of excellence set forth by Special Olympics’ national recognition program.
“I think the world would be a better place if the world was more like Warren,” Everett said to the students.
As parent Patty Salgado put it, the support and campus atmosphere has done wonders for her son, Brandon, and his peers with intellectual disabilities.
Among the on-campus groups she personally thanked was the social club, “Teen Connection,” which was started 10 years ago by special education teacher Christine Spino.
“Watching our kids participate from the stands has impacted us parents in so many ways,” she told the crowd.
“They deserve to feel included, respected, and be a part of what I see here.”
The Unified Generation was on display throughout the afternoon, as the students and invited guests erupted following performances from the Unified cheerleading and track and field teams, including a 4×100-meter relay race featuring students and teachers.
Other Unified teams and clubs at the school include a basketball team and P.E. and art classes.
Assisting Everett with master of ceremonies duties were student co-hosts Karen Travieso and Diego Salazar, a freshman who also delivered a stirring rendition of the national anthem.
“Teen Connection creates a social forum that brings students together to form bonds and establish relationships that will go well beyond the classroom,” said Travieso, the club’s co-president.
Warren High School principal Laura Rivas beamed with pride at the display her students put on.
“I’ve always known, and I’ve seen it and been a part of it, so it’s really special to have organizations from the outside recognize [our work],” she said.
“This is where they set their frame for how they’re going to behave as adults. I think it’s important for them to be accepting and to be inclusive at an early age. That will just permeate the way in which they interact in our society once they leave us.”
Later that day, Everett featured the ceremony on SportsCenter as part of his “Best Thing I Heard Today” segment. Or, as he said on the air, “best thing I did today.”
As seen on @SportsCenter, Warren High School in California officially received their Unified Champion School banner & an #SCTop10 ranking! #ChooseToInclude #UnifiedGeneration pic.twitter.com/lZyxh5nNma
— Special Olympics (@SpecialOlympics) February 13, 2019
Immediately following the event, Everett was blown away by the “tremendous outpouring of love.”
“I’m just a big believer that love will conquer a lot of ills,” he said. “These kids, that they include them like that, I’m overwhelmed. I’m so touched by what I’ve seen today and what I felt from this community.
“This is a message that needs to be heard. How could you not be for this? I’m glad ESPN has flexed its muscles.”