Athletes can come in all shapes, sizes and abilities, and being a true champion is all about having a winning attitude.
That was the message and spirit behind the second Seymour Community Schools’ Champions Together Unified Game Day on Tuesday.
The expanded event featured more than 200 students in preschool through eighth grade, all of whom competed in track and field events and skills stations at Seymour High School’s Bulleit Stadium.
Half of the athletes were special needs students with physical and/or developmental disabilities, and the other half were peer mentors, who spent the past few weeks volunteering to help train their fellow schoolmates in their adaptive physical education classes.
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“Really, we’ve been preparing all year,” said Mika Ahlbrand, director of special education for Seymour Community Schools. “Our staff has attended training through Special Olympics.”
Of course, there are health benefits from all of the physical activity, but the social benefits are even greater.
“It allows students to collaborate and form friendships,” she said.
Seymour-Redding Elementary School fifth-graders Jimmy Tepetate and Nicholas Bowman said they had fun making sure students like third-grader Elijah Cowles were having fun.
Elijah is in a wheelchair, but that didn’t stop him from giving it his all in the different activities. From his smile to his movements, it wasn’t difficult to see he liked interacting with all of the other kids.
Track events included a softball throw, standing long jump, running/walking, hurdles and a relay. Skills stations were beach ball volleyball, a balance beam, bowling, beanbag throw, soccer kick, T-ball swing, ring toss, lance throw and others.
Some of Tuesday’s activities had to be modified, but students still had to exhibit skill, concentration and determination.
With gentle hands, Jimmy and Nicholas helped Elijah wrap his fingers around a foam pool noodle and launch it into the air like a javelin, clapping and giving encouragement on every throw.
“I thought it would be fun and something new to do,” Jimmy said of working with special needs students.
“We volunteered and then got picked by our gym teacher to help,” Nicholas said. “I’m glad we got picked because I’ve really liked doing it.”
The boys said they quickly formed a friendship and close bond with Elijah and liked seeing him smile and get excited.
“It makes them happy, and that makes us happy,” Jimmy said.
The whole purpose of Champions Together, which is a part of the Special Olympics Indiana Unified Champion Schools program, is to include all kids, regardless of physical and/or mental challenges, and to unify schools and communities.
Francie Smith, south regional manager with Special Olympics Indiana, attended Tuesday’s event and said it was impressive to see how Seymour Community Schools supports and celebrates students with disabilities.
“The ultimate goal is for all students in Indiana schools to be afforded equality, access, opportunity, respect and acceptance,” Smith said.
Seymour was one of five Hoosier school systems selected last year to pilot the Unified Champion Schools program when it was called Young Champions. This year, around 80 schools are involved, Smith said.
To create a positive environment and experiences for children with special needs, it requires building a culture of inclusion and unification, she sad.
“These students are going to know what it’s like to have friends their age and to grow up with each other, whereas years ago, that would not have been the case,” Smith said. “We’ve come a long way in regards to inclusion, but there’s always more that can be done.”
Smith said she hopes the Unified Champion Schools program in Seymour will increase interest among young students to get involved in Special Olympics. Efforts are underway to restart a Special Olympics program in Jackson County.
Teachers and other volunteers, including Seymour High School athletes, helped supervise Tuesday’s field day, while parents and family members sat in the stands or stood along the fence cheering on the kids.
In true Olympic fashion, the event started with an opening ceremony, where each school’s team of athletes and peer mentors walked into the stadium together along with their school principals to musical fanfare.
Students Miles Cantu and Elijah Mullins from Margaret R. Brown Elementary School, Carter Baxter and Kaelin Grube from Emerson Elementary School and Anna Schepman and Carlee Claxton from Seymour-Redding Elementary School presented the flags for the Pledge of Allegiance, national anthem and Special Olympics oath.
“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” the students recited.
Afterwards, Seymour Middle School student A.J. Engel and School Resource Officer Jack Hauer carried in the Flame of Hope to inspire the students to do their best.
Chris Baxter of Seymour was in the stands to watch his son, Carter, participate and support the other athletes, too.
“I quite enjoyed it,” Baxter said. “I liked the camaraderie between the athletes and their peer buddies and just the overall positive environment.”
At the end of the day, all students earned participation ribbons, a completion medal and recognition during the closing ceremony.
“We were extremely proud of his overall performance, and he was quite proud of the ribbons and medal he received,” Baxter said.
Walking off the field, it didn’t matter who ran the fastest, jumped the highest or threw the farthest because success was measured in smiles and effort, and students were champions together.
What: Informational meeting to restart and strengthen Special Olympics in Jackson County
When: 5:30 p.m. May 15
Where: Seymour-Redding Elementary School, 1700 N. Ewing St.
Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities.
For information, call Francie Smith at 812-664-2310 or visit soindiana.org.