Christine Spino is no stranger in bringing communities together and the inclusion revolution. Whether it’s teaching special education students, volunteering and coaching at Special Olympics Southern California, or coordinating a social inclusion club, she has made accepting all people, no matter their skillsets, a priority.
Christine is a teacher at Warren High School, part of the Downey Unified School District, and she first became involved with Special Olympics when a colleague of hers introduced her to the organization 17 years ago. She enjoyed volunteering so much that eight years ago she decided to get more involved by coaching track and field in Long Beach.
“I love every new program and sport,” Christine said. “Teaming up with Special Olympics has taken Warren High School’s inclusive programs to new levels that I could never have imagined.”
Through Christine’s dedication, Teen Connection has been able to take Unified Sports (where people with and without intellectual disabilities train and compete together on the same team) to new heights. The club first started 11 years ago with 15 students and has quickly grown to about 150 students. Teen Connection creates several opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to interact with general education peers through events such as dances, rallies, football games, movie nights, kickball tournaments, abilities awareness week, the R-word campaign, and much more.
The success doesn’t end there; a little over a year ago, Christine applied for Warren High School to become a Unified Champion School. With sports as the foundation, schools are eligible to become a Unified Champion School by offering three programs: Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership, and Whole School Engagement. These programs spread acceptance, inclusion, and an active lifestyle for all and reduce bullying. This year, Warren High School officially started Unified Sports through its athletic department.
“We have unified basketball, unified cheer, and a unified track team,” Christine continued. “I love that my students have the opportunity to be active members of their school campus and recognized by the entire school as valued members of the student body.”
Not only is Teen Connection one of the largest and most active clubs on campus, but it has also been nationally recognized for its social inclusion efforts. Last August, the club was one of the 30 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools to be part of the first class of ESPN Honor Roll schools. Shortly after, Teen Connection moved upward once more when it was named one of ESPN’s “Top 5” Unified Champion School on Sept. 6.
Warren High School was also the very first Special Olympics Southern California Unified Champion School to be recognized as a National Banner Unified Champion School. This meant that Warren High School met the 10 national standards of excellence in areas such as Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership, whole-school engagement, and sustainability. At its core, it is not just about including students with intellectual disabilities, but unifying all students, moving from adult-led programming to student-led mobilization and action, and transitioning from sports as recreation to sports as a catalyst for social inclusion and change.
The school was honored during a formal ceremony this past February.
For Christine, being a volunteer isn’t necessarily “volunteering.” To her, it’s something she loves and does because of the joy she witnesses with her students. She’s able to connect with them on a different level that has made their relationships better. It has also brought her amazing friendships and memories.
“On behalf of our family, my son’s peers and the entire special needs community here in Downey, we’d like to give a heartfelt thank you to Ms. Spino and her amazing team for bringing Unified Sports to our kids here at Warren,” said Patty Salgado, mother of Warren High School student Brandon Salgado. “Watching our kids play basketball, track and field, and unified cheer has impacted us parents in so many ways.”