As students with disabilities from Seymour and Madison prepared to compete in the long jump, softball toss and 50-yard dash, Seymour High School boys track and field coach Randy Fife gave each of them a high-five or a fist bump.

“Good luck. Do your best today,” Fife said to the 18 boys and girls.

In a roped-off area inside the track at Bulleit Stadium for the first two events, the high-fives and fist bumps continued. Athletes helping with Tuesday’s event, along with parents, friends, teachers and school administrators, also cheered, clapped and chanted the kids’ names.

Then, during a break in the track meet between Seymour and Madison, the students ran a 50-yard sprint. The high school student volunteers, representing sports teams at Seymour, ran alongside them.

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At the finish line, there were more high-fives and fist bumps. Afterward, each participant received a medal and a gift bag.

It’s safe to say that Seymour’s first Inclusion Revolution track meet was a success for everyone involved, organizers said.

Seymour sophomore Savannah Drummond said competing made her feel special.

“Because you could see the other kids like us get to do it, too,” she said.

Drummond said her favorite part was the softball toss. That was senior Megan Williams’ favorite thing, too.

“I like seeing how far I can throw it,” Williams said.

Sophomore Dalton Sullivan said he liked long jump and softball toss, and junior Johnathan Marshall had the most fun with long jump.

“It’s fun. It makes me happy,” Sullivan said of competing.

“It means a lot because the high-fives, they’re pretty awesome,” Marshall said.

Teaming up

The track meet was in conjunction with the IHSAA’s Champions Together program, which allows students with disabilities to feel included by competing in the three modified events. The purpose also is to support and provide donations to Special Olympics Indiana, which is a program partner.

Lee Lonzo, director of Champions Together, said the program started last year with 197 schools, and events have been conducted in all IHSAA sports except wrestling.

Teachers Sydney Davis and Debbie Clifford work with students with disabilities on a daily basis at Seymour High School. The kids participate in adaptive physical education classes, where general education students serve as mentors.

But this was the first time they got to compete in a track meet.

“This is special for them. This is them in the spotlight and shining, and it’s really cool,” said Davis, who is in her first year of teaching intense interventions. “For me, it’s just really cool to see my kids out socializing with others. That’s the best part of my day, is when my kids take the initiative and talk to other kids, and they talk back, and they have a great time together.”

Clifford, who has taught moderate life skills at the high school for three years after spending 12 years at the elementary level, said there was a combination of nervousness and excitement among her students.

Even though they practiced the events earlier in the week, Clifford said, some of them were scared about competing. But she assured them it would be OK.

“I said, ‘You can do it. I know you can,’” she said. “Then, they come and give you a hug, and it’s all worth it.”

During certain school days, the students do a variety of activities in P.E., including occasionally going to the bowling alley.

Davis’ class of 10 students recently wrapped up swimming, and that was a big hit.

“It was super fun,” Davis said. “All of my kids got to get in the water, and we had floats, and they loved it. … It was my personal favorite because with a lot of my kids in wheelchairs, it can be difficult to do some of the physical activities. But in the water, it’s like we’re all in it, and it’s really fun.”

In Davis’ classroom, there is individualized academics, including math, reading and writing, along with a lot of physical therapy, occupational therapy and social skills.

Clifford’s 17 students work on higher-level math, reading and spelling; learn everyday life skills, including laundry and cooking; and work and volunteer in the community.

General education students spend a lot of time working with the kids with disabilities in both classrooms and the gym. And for the first time Tuesday, they got to help with the track meet.

“I just love that my kids have so many opportunities to interact with others and learn from others because I’m their teacher, but they really do learn from peers,” Davis said. “They look up to their peers, and when they see their peers doing something, being positive and encouraging, they feed off of that, and they get excited.”

Benefits for all

Junior Noah Bullard, who is on the Seymour swim team, and sophomore Peyton Heyne, a member of the gymnastics squad, were among the athletes helping with the meet.

“We knew that it was going to be a good opportunity for the kids, and it was really something that we all wanted to do because we had never really done anything like it, and a lot of schools around us have done things like this,” Bullard said.

“I was really excited to do it, but we had nothing to base it off of,” Heyne said. “It was our first year, and it was kind of all student-led. It was kind of overwhelming at first, but it has been a great payoff.”

Athletics director Brandon Harpe, assistant AD Dave Urbanski and several coaches and school officials were on hand for the event.

Everyone did their part in encouraging the students participating in a meet for the first time.

“It’s amazing because you know that they’ve never done anything like it before. They’re out of their comfort zone, and it’s amazing to see these kids come out here and do well with each other,” Bullard said.

“It was just really cool to see how they shined because oftentimes, these kids don’t get to be out here, and they don’t get to be in these athletic events, and they finally got their chance,” Heyne said. “Just to see the smiles out there, it was just really fantastic.”

Clifford and Davis agreed seeing everyone together was special.

“I think it really promotes inclusion, doing it alongside a track event for the school,” Davis said. “We’ve got lots of fans already here, fans that may not get to see this type of interaction, people in our community that might not get to see this type of interaction. They are seeing it now, we’re getting the word out, we’re getting inclusion out and getting people familiar with this kind of thing.”

Later that night, Clifford said, she sent an email to thank school officials.

“Some ran faster than others, some could throw farther, but all were a part,” she wrote. “It was better than getting that one special gift you’ve wanted for years at Christmas. Some were nervous, but once they started, the fear melted away. I am flying high and won’t come down for a while. It will be a short night’s sleep because I am like a mom who is so proud of her children that I could pop any minute.”

Special time

It was interesting for Davis because she graduated from Shawe Memorial High School in Madison and knows some of the Madison kids, some of whom compete in Special Olympics.

The Seymour teachers weren’t aware of any of their students participating in Special Olympics. But now that the kids got a taste of competing, they may give it a shot.

“I’m hoping this will open their eyes and their minds to it, that it’s out there and they could,” Davis said.

They also would like to see Inclusion Revolution become an annual event.

“We are all talking about doing it again, so hopefully, it’s something we continue,” Davis said.

“It’s one of those things that I hope to experience many more times,” Clifford said.

At a glance

What is Champions Together?

Champions Together is a collaborative partnership between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics Indiana that promotes servant leadership among student-athletes while changing their lives as well as the lives of those with intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics International is supporting Champions Together as a model program to activate schools through “Project Unify,” which also has the endorsement of the National Federation of High Schools.

What are the goals of the program?

1. Provide opportunities for student-led servant leadership as part of the IHSAA experience

2. Create awareness and opportunities for inclusion as it relates to all individuals with intellectual disabilities

3. Encourage volunteerism for IHSAA student-athletes through service to their schools and communities

4. Promote fundraising for the purpose of promoting the vision and programs of Special Olympics Indiana and Champions Together

At a glance

Did you know?

An analysis by Baker, Wang and Walberg in 1994 concluded that “special needs students educated in regular classes do better academically and socially than comparable students in non-inclusive settings.”

In May 2000, the Indiana Inclusion Study concluded that students without disabilities who were educated in inclusive settings made significantly greater progress in math than their peers.

Students without disabilities can serve as positive speech and behavior role models and offer acceptance, tolerance, patience and friendship.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.