The participants began by swinging their arm back and launching a softball as far as they could.

Some threw more than 100 feet. Others threw only a few feet. But either way, people gathered in the area clapped and cheered, saying such things as “Good job,” “Yeah!” “Wow!” There were even a few high-fives and fist bumps.

Then it was time to start a few feet behind a white line, run a few steps and jump as far as they could when they reached the line. That drew more applause and encouraging words.

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Finally, lining up across the eight lanes of the track, they waited for the sound of a starting gun and then ran 50 yards as fast as they could. At the finish line, people jumped with excitement and gave more high-fives and congratulatory words.

All participants received a gift bag that included a medal and a T-shirt, and they had their picture taken with the high school students who helped organize the event.

The second annual Inclusion Revolution track and field meet was conducted Thursday night at Seymour High School’s Bulleit Stadium during a varsity meet between Seymour, Jennings County and Bedford North Lawrence.

The meet was in conjunction with the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Champions Together program, which allows students with disabilities to feel included by competing in three modified events — softball toss, standing long jump and 50-yard dash. Special Olympics Indiana is a program partner.

It was a night of pure exhilaration and happiness.

“I liked that everyone was cheering for me,” said freshman Haley Ackeret, who was among nine Seymour High School special needs students competing. “It makes me feel like I’m special.”

Ackeret said she practiced for the three events in recent weeks during an adaptive physical education class, where general education students serve as mentors. Her favorite event was the sprint.

“Oh, I love to run,” she said. “I just like running a lot.”

This was senior Megan Williams’ second year participating. Last year, she said she liked the softball toss the most. But this year, she went with the 50-yard dash.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I like when people run with me. I like competing with the others to see who’s the fastest.”

The Seymour participants are in Jill Halterman’s intense life skills class or Debbie Clifford’s moderate life skills class.

This is Halterman’s first year teaching at Seymour, and she said watching the Inclusion Revolution meet for the first time was “absolutely awesome.”

“I think it’s not only great for my students, but the (general education) population, as well, because to see the look on their face and the look on my students’ face, it’s just an unbelievable feeling to know that they really are just like everybody else,” she said.

“I have peer tutors that come in my room that are gen ed students, and it’s just the same as that, where they are included,” she said. “They can run. They can jump. They can throw. It might be a different weight of a ball, but they can still throw. It might not be as far, but they can still throw.”

The upbeat environment at the meet was the highlight for Halterman.

“In my classroom, there are some days where we’re really sick or behavior might not be top-notch,” she said. “But this is nothing but positivity.”

Tammy Hayes said she noticed that, too. Her daughter, Alex Hayes, a sophomore at Seymour High School, was among the participants.

“I think it’s super cool because we even went out in the community today, and all of these kids are like, ‘Hi, Alex.’ I’m like, ‘Who are these kids?’” she said, laughing. “But she’s a part of it all. That’s awesome they are educating the community, and they are finally getting some acceptance. I never thought I would see this. This is the community coming together and all going toward one goal.”

Tammy Hayes said it was exciting to hear people chanting her daughter’s name as she participated.

“I hope that she takes away a form of friendship, teamwork and all of the stuff that any other kid that plays any other sport gets,” she said.

Halterman said she knows her students will benefit from the experience.

“They will talk about it for the rest of the school year, and they will probably wear their medals for the rest of the year,” she said. “It will help them tremendously with their confidence and just a feeling of being the same. Inclusion is possible. It’s a lot of work, but it really is possible to be included.”

Halterman said she also could tell the event was a good experience for the general education students.

“I hope they will come visit my room more often and hang out with the kids and just know that they are just like them,” she said. “I have one student that just lights up when one of my peer tutors comes. When she asks me if it’s the day that she’s coming, she loves it.”

Halterman said it has been a good first year for her teaching special education.

“It’s an eye-opening experience,” she said. “They all have different goals, they all have different needs, and when they take all year long and they meet that goal, it’s huge for them to be able to do something as simple as just walking for a certain amount of time a day or to be able to count to 10 and recognize those numbers. Those are small goals, but when they are met, they are huge.”

The group of about 20 general education students who helped with the meet are either involved in the student athletic board, National Honor Society or Special Olympics committee.

Junior Peyton Heyne also helped with Inclusion Revolution last year.

“Our student athletic board leads this, and this year, we also got NHS to help us,” she said. “That’s kind of a big deal because we’re getting more and more groups involved with this, and I think that’s awesome that we can get as many clubs and groups as we can doing this.”

Heyne said this year’s meet was another good experience.

“To me, there’s no greater feeling than when that kid does that jump or throws that ball or finishes that race and they turn around with that smile,” she said. “This year, we had wheelchair kids in the dash, and I was crying. There’s nothing better than seeing that because those kids don’t get to do that every day.”

Junior Mya Findley also was at last year’s meet, but she was focused on writing about the event for the school newspaper. This year, she helped promote the event by visiting elementary and middle schools to tell them about disabilities and invite them to the meet.

“I have a brother that is autistic. Of course, he’s older now and can’t participate,” Findley said. “But to see people like him be able to come together and compete and do something they’ve never been able to do before, and on the flip side, to see the parents see their kids do something that they’ve never seen their kids do before … it’s honestly a heart-touching experience.”

Findley already is looking forward to next year’s meet.

“It’s something that I hope we continue to do and something that everyone should be super appreciative of,” she said. “It amazes me to see everyone that comes out to support it, and I just hope that it only grows with the years to come because it’s great.”

This was the first year for senior Ryan Wieneke, junior Mason Pottschmidt and sophomore Alan Perry to help with the meet.

“It was great to see how happy they were and how good it made them feel,” Wieneke said of the participants. “Seeing the smile on their faces and seeing how happy it was just makes you feel better about yourself.”

Pottschmidt said he was amazed to see how far the kids could throw the ball and compete in the other events.

“They are very good,” he said. “I hope they had fun and keep staying active. I think that’s a very important thing for kids like that to do.”

Pottschmidt said the goal is for him and the other volunteers to serve as role models.

“I think we have to stay positive and help others that aren’t involved with it but are seeing us and make sure they stay positive toward those kids,” he said.

Perry said the event was good for everyone involved.

“It was my first taste of how it went and how it was, and it was awesome just seeing the kids smile,” he said. “Knowing what I get from sports — being able to have fun and be with my friends — and being able to see them go through that same thing was awesome.”

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

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