Editor’s note: As part of National Volunteer Week, WeAreSOSC.org will highlight a handful of volunteers who have made a difference in the lives of Special Olympics Southern California athletes. Today, we are featuring a volunteer from our Schools Program. Check back each day to read about how our volunteers spread acceptance and inclusion throughout local communities.
More than five years ago, Sue Williams attended an Adapted Physical Education Conference and learned about the benefits of Unified Sports. The idea is to bring together students with and without intellectual disabilities and promote acceptance and inclusion through sports.
She was aware that Adapted P.E. teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District had put together a Unified soccer tournament and became more intrigued. Sue, an Adapted P.E. teacher at Westminster High School, was determined to create a program on her campus “that would add value and real life sports experiences.”
“I knew that I had to find a way to make it happen,” she added. “The challenge was that I really didn’t know the other three Adapted P.E. teachers in our district.”
Initially, that obstacle made her unsure about how to add the idea to the existing Adapted P.E. program. So, Sue started with general education students from classes that met the same periods as her Adapted/modified P.E. classes. She got about 15-20 students to agree to attend her class three to four times per week for a month.
Soon enough, they put together their own Unified soccer tournament with six teams in 2014.
“ASB came with signs, the cheerleaders came to cheer, families and friends came to watch,” Sue said, “and a few teachers brought their classes out to see the tournament. It was amazing!”
With each tournament, Sue also invited the school’s administration, who then informed the Huntington Beach Union High School District about the concept. What started as Westminster-hosted events eventually developed into Edison and Fountain Valley high schools joining the fold by 2016, Ocean View High School the following year, and a plan for each participating school to host a tournament. That allowed the students on each campus to engage in and support Unified Sports.
In addition to soccer, students in the district also compete in basketball, soccer, track and field, and volleyball.
“Everyone from the superintendent to the school board was 100 percent on board and supportive,” she recalled.
“During the Opening Ceremony for each tournament, it is pretty amazing to see the lineup of administrators and board members from the district office that come out to watch and support.”
Parents have been “overwhelmingly supportive,” too, and something as simple as the sight of their child competing in a uniform with the school name has made an impact, Sue said.
“Unified Sports has added to their (child’s) school experience,” she added.
“I would say that the parents of the General Education partners have enjoyed seeing these same benefits, since the partners are not necessarily the students on campus that are participating on the sports teams.”
District-wide implementation wasn’t possible without the support from Special Olympics Southern California. She met SOSC staff member Jesus Cabrera at a Spring Games event and the relationship with the organization grew from there.
By the first week of school in September 2018, she submitted paperwork to become a Unified Champion District and funding was approved by the end of November. That funding has resulted in five schools competing in four tournaments each year, with costs covered for uniforms, tournament T-shirts, transportation, lunches and awards.
In addition to sports, Unified Champion Schools and Unified Champion Districts must also meet the requirements of inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement. The Huntington Beach Union High School District created a Youth Leadership Council comprised of five to seven students from all six schools, even those without Unified programs. Included are ASB members, Special Olympics athletes and general education partners who meet once per quarter to plan activities such as Kindness Week and RESPECT week.
“There is a greater awareness and a sense of expectation on campus that at every event/activity, all students will be involved,” Sue said.
To help maintain a financially stable district-wide program, they hosted an inaugural golf tournament fundraiser that included 112 golfers, raffle prizes and an opportunity to sponsor a Special Olympics athlete.
Although she is transitioning into retirement, Sue has committed to continue serving as the event chair.
Bringing the students together in a school setting was one thing, but the real value in Unified Sports was in the new friendships that would carry on “outside of the class setting.”
“They have repeatedly told me how much they love coming to P.E.” Sue said.
“It is very cool to see the interaction between the students socially, as they talk about what they did over the weekend, who their friends are, their favorite movie. … Many of my students have told me that they plan to become a special education teacher as a result of their participation in Unified P.E. and Unified Sports.”
To learn more about Special Olympics Southern California’s Schools Program and Unified Champion Schools, visit sosc.org/schools.