Making a difference through Special Olympics

For these teachers, Special Olympics is a longtime passion.

With nearly 15 years combined as volunteer coaches, Connerton Elementary’s Jean Howey and Jenna Moore have experienced the positives of the world’s largest sports organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities, and strives to “transform lives through the joy of sport, training and competition.”

Together, the teachers run Connerton’s Special Olympics Unified sports program, which pairs special needs athletes with nondisabled peers, or ‘partners.’

Connerton Elementary School physical education teacher Jean Howey has been actively involved in Special Olympics since joining the school in 2014. She also helps facilitate various school inclusivity campaigns such as ‘Best Buddies’ and ‘Spread the Word to End the Word.’ Courtesy of Jenna Moore)

Athletes and partners compete year-round against other unified programs across Pasco County and Florida — in everything from basketball, bocce and bowling, to track and field and cycling, and more.

The Connerton educators estimate the school features about 40 coed athletes and “at least that many on campus who are partners.”

Howey, a physical education teacher, and Moore, who teaches special-needs students, coordinate times for the athletes and partners to practice together in gym class, at recess and other planned times at the end of the school day.

Beyond that, the educators help facilitate various school inclusivity campaigns such as “Best Buddies” and “Spread the Word to End the Word.”

“Best Buddies” pairs basic-education students and kids with disabilities. “Spread the Word to End the Word” aims to eliminate hurtful language when talking about people with disabilities.

The teachers even formed an afterschool running program for boys and girls.

In addition to the unified sports, these initiatives have helped eliminate misconceptions that some may have about students with physical or intellectual limitations, the teachers said.

Additionally, it has fostered tight-knit bonds and lasting friendships between basic-education student and their special-needs peers, from prekindergarten up through fifth grade.

“They see they’re more alike than different and they become friends. They want to come play with each other and visit with each other,” said Howey, who’s been at Connerton since 2014.

Moore added, “there’s just something so pure and natural about their friendship and how they care for each other.”

It shows up in different ways, the teacher added: “Just the little things that they do to encourage each other — it’s a really special thing.”

While Special Olympics offerings have been available at the Land O’ Lakes school since it opened in 2010, the more inclusive unified program was newly introduced this year.

New Port Richey’s Longleaf Elementary is the county’s only other elementary schools that also offers a unified program.

According to Special Olympics Florida’s website, unified programs enable Special Olympics athletes to not only learn and play new sports, but also experience meaningful inclusion. Each athlete is ensured of playing a valued role on the team.

Opening the door to new friendships, experiences
The teams also provide a forum for positive social interaction.

All participants are of similar age and ability, and unified teams are constructed to provide training and competition opportunities that meaningfully challenge and involve all athletes.

The educators advocate for more unified programs to be introduced at other elementary schools, suggesting it teaches kids at a younger age the importance of social inclusion and breaking down stereotypes about people with disabilities.

In some cases, the athletes prove better at a particular sport or activity than their unified partners, to their partners’ surprise.

That signals a pleasant moment for both the athletes and their partners alike, the educators said.

Connerton Elementary School teacher Jenna Moore has been a Special Olympics volunteer coach for more than a decade. 

Said Moore, “I think one of the cool things is (partners’) realization like, ‘They can do this! They can do it!’ They’re realizing like they have this preconceived notion about what someone can do and it’s like, ‘They’re blowing me away, they’re blowing me out of the water.’”

Added Howey: “You get partnered with someone who might be deemed ‘normal’ and you’re better at something than they are? That’s a really cool feeling.”

The program also creates opportunities for special experiences.

This coming weekend, Howey and Moore will be taking eight students (six athletes, two partners) to the Florida State Summer Games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, in Lake Buena Vista.

The event, which runs from May 18 to May 19, is the culmination of athletes’ training and competition cycle for a specific sports season. In order to compete in a State Championship event, athletes and teams must have completed eight weeks of training, and compete at county and area level competitions.

Connerton students will participate in such events as bocce, cycling, a unified relay, and soccer skills. (While all grade levels can compete in Special Olympics, children must be at least 8 years old to participate in area and state games.)

During the stay, students will also partake in a dance and pizza party, and other activities led by Special Olympics, such as a free health examination, and opening and closing ceremonies.

For some athletes, State Summer Games marks the first time they’ve ever stayed the night away from family.

In essence, the weekend is wholly dedicated to the kids.

“It’s really exciting for the kids,” said Moore.

“It’s a big deal, and you can’t go there and not be happy. It’s impossible to not be happy,” she said.

Published May 16, 2018

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