“It doesn’t matter how far you go, just go as fast as you can,” junior Mick Wiggins yelled as he ran alongside the special education athletes, who were dribbling the soccer ball in and out of orange cones.
In the spring of last year, Special Olympics Unified Teams reached out to SHARE coordinator Krissie Wiggins about starting a unified team – a team of special and regular education kids united to play a sport together, here at East. Their goal is to get as many schools as possible in the Kansas chapter to adopt a unified team, which would offer special education students a unique way to get involved in athletics.
Krissie sent a list of all the SHARE projects out to the school, while also giving a copy of the list to her son. She was on a mission to find volunteers.
“[Mick] said, ‘I would do this Special Olympics one.’ His uncle has an intellectual disability so [Mick has] grown up with him,” Krissie said.
Since SHARE is student-run, Krissie left the project almost entirely to Mick.
“I was familiar with a lot of the special education kids at East, and I just really felt like bringing this to our school would be a good opportunity for those kids to play some sports,” Mick said. “It would almost be an extension of Pack of Pals, but with a different aspect to it.
As chair of Special Olympics, Mick stepped up to be the coach. Mick had to get his concussion certification, a sports specific certification, as well as becoming certified through Special Olympics. This is so Mick would be able to to identify concussions, and show that he understood the rules of each sport.
Special Olympics gave Mick recommendations for how he should hold practices and coach the athletes. They also provided handbooks filled with drills he can use at practices.
The Special Olympics program received over fifty volunteers, which was the most sign-ups any SHARE event got this year. Mick held a meeting on November 22, and those who were available to commit to the program during January and February became volunteers for Special Olympics’ first sport: bocce ball.
“Most of the athletes understand the sports, so it’s not like we are introducing them to the activities,” Mick said. “It’s just kind of knowing how to deal with the situations that come. We’re not super competitive. More than anything, we like to have fun.”
Both special and regular education athletes – also known as unified partners – practiced bocce ball every seminar to prepare for the March 27 tournament.
“We have a lot of inside jokes with the athletes,” Mick said. “We all laugh a lot at every practice and every game, we have fun.”
East had two unified bocce ball teams, and they placed second and third out of 12 teams at the local Special Olympics tournament.
“My favorite part of the bocce ball tournament was watching the kids stand up there and get medals because they were so happy, and so were their parents,” Mick said. “Afterwards, I had several parents come up and thank me.”
Beth Schultz, parent of sophomore special needs student Jackson Schultz, is very thankful for the program. Jackson loves sports, but since he is a special education student, there was no program at East that allowed him to compete prior to the Special Olympics program.
“I think the world of [the volunteers], I really do,” Beth said. “It almost brought tears to our eyes when we saw how many kids were willing to dedicate their free time to a whole day on the weekend. Just seeing them interact with the kids. Seeing how accepting they were, not [being] judgemental.”
Special Olympics’ second sport of the year will be soccer, and practices have already begun. The athletes are more interested in soccer than they were in bocce ball, according to Mick, so Mick is expecting a few more athletes to join the team.
Next year, Mick is planning to add a third sport: basketball.
“I want to develop [Special Olympics] before I graduate and hand it down to younger students so we can keep this thing going,” Mick said. “It has meant just as much to the regular education kids as it has to the special education kids. It has been a great program and I hope to keep it as a part of East for as long as possible.”