The experience of being on a team is something that many remember fondly about their high school years.
But this hasn’t been a part of the typical high school experience for most teens with special needs.
That is changing now.
The Special Olympics Unified Sports program began in Clark County last year. It partners special education student athletes with general education students in various sports such as soccer and basketball. Locally, Camas and Washougal high schools participate in Unified programs.
Dani Allen is in her second year coaching a Unified team. The Jemtegaard Middle School art teacher spent many years working with special education students, and vowed to give back after she transferred to a general education position.
“I saw that Unified sports was coming to Clark County and I jumped on it,” she said. “It’s life-changing and so different than being in a classroom. These kids get to celebrate their abilities. Some of the athletes, I had when I was teaching special education. It is awesome to see them grow and become so successful.”
Allen is helped out by assistant coaches Lin and Greg Guiles of Washougal.
“They are an important part of the program,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without them.”
Special Olympics helps with funding through a $2,000 grant for equipment and uniforms. The special education program at WHS pays for any remaining costs.
The coaching is volunteer, and students pay no fees to participate.
The WHS team competes in division one, which is considered a competitive league.
Allen noted that being on a team has provided unexpected benefits and life lessons for the student athletes:
They must have their uniform washed and ready for games, and remember to bring shoes and practice clothes on school days. They practice three days a week and have games every Saturday during the season.
“Being on a team is a huge self-esteem booster for these kids,” she said. “And the interaction with the general education kids who help as partners is positive and great to watch.”
Allen described the partners as “really great kids that always give 110 percent.”
“To watch them build relationships and break down barriers is awesome,” she said. “They have a really great team camaraderie.”
Tenth-grader Dylan Corbitt, a center on the basketball team, is new to the sport, but enjoying his experience.
“It’s a lot of fun and winning games is the best,” he said. “I have learned a lot about rebounding.”
Andrew Valenzuela, a junior forward, smiles when asked what he enjoys most about playing on the Unified team.
“I like it all,” he said. “It’s been really good and I have learned to shoot well.”
Senior Brennan Guiles and sophomore Jessie Larson volunteered in the Unified soccer program last spring, so participating in basketball was a natural step.
“I have really enjoyed it so far,” Larson said. “My favorite part is getting to know all of the players. I have a whole different perspective of the special ed program.”
Guiles’ love of soccer persuaded him to volunteer for the Unified program. But the participants kept him coming back.
“I like seeing how happy they are about life,” he said. “It energizes me as well. The smallest thing will put a smile on their faces.”
Kyle Hoesly, a senior, also began as a volunteer in the Unified soccer program.
“I really enjoy helping put smiles on the players’ faces,” he said. “The only disability you can have is a bad attitude, and they all have good attitudes.”
Susan Odenthal watched as her son Nathan ran through drills with his teammates.
“He gets to be here and interact with his friends and feel like a part of the school,” she said. “It is a lot of fun for him to be there. He’s now saying hi to the general education students in the hallways and feels more connected. It’s fun watching him, and the coaches have been great.”
The next Unified tournament will be held Saturday at Heritage High School from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Games are free to attend.
“It’s hard to put this whole experience into words,” Allen said. “People need to see it in action.”