Land O’ Lakes High School’s Unified Special Olympics program received international attention more than three years ago, when its coed soccer team won the bronze medal at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
Now, the school’s Unified program has earned another prestigious honor — 2018 Special Olympics National Banner Unified Champion School.
The designation, based on the 2017-2018 school year, means Land O’ Lakes met 10 standards of excellence set forth by Special Olympics International. These standards focus on four key areas: Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership, Whole School Engagement and sustainability for the program.
Land O’ Lakes was one of just 13 schools in Florida — and 132 schools nationally — to receive the designation. New Port Richey’s Longleaf Elementary School and Seven Springs Middle School also were named Unified Champion Schools.
The Unified Special Olympics sports program pairs special needs athletes with nondisabled peers, called partners. Together, these athletes and partners compete year-round against other unified programs in sports, such as basketball, soccer, swimming, golf, and others.
According to Special Olympics Florida’s website, the Unified program enables 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. The teams also provide a forum for positive social interaction.
All participants are of similar age and ability, and unified teams are designed to provide training and competition opportunities that meaningfully challenge and involve all athletes.
Special Olympics sports rules, moreover, make sure that everyone has “a fair and enjoyable competitive experience.”
The national honor brings satisfaction to Vicky King, who’s coached Special Olympics programming at Land O’ Lakes for more than 30 years.
“It means that we’ve done a lot,” King said, “and, we have a student body and community that is very involved, because it’s all about inclusion and acceptance everywhere, not just in athletics, but just as a school and a community.”
According to King, the Land O’ Lakes Unified program last year featured more than 20 coed athletes and nearly 40 partners, representing a solid participation rate based on the school’s ESE (Exceptional Student Education) population.
For the 2018-2019 academic school year, the Pasco County school district relocated its special education unit —and Unified program— to Sunlake High School.
Before the transfer, King estimates the Unified program was installed at Land O’ Lakes sometime in the early 2000s, after the school had a traditional Special Olympics sports program.
King noted the Unified program did wonders for involvement between the school’s students with special needs and the rest of the student body. “If you look at some Special Olympics athletes in some places, they’re singled out, they’re not included; but when our athletes were here, they were just other kids,” King said.
Club keeps students involved with Special Olympics
While Land O’ Lakes no longer has its own Unified teams, the school still remains active in Unified sports programming. The school has an organization called the Student Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), which numbers about 90 students who volunteer at local Special Olympics events and/or become Unified partners.
Through the club, Land O’ Lakes sophomore Courtney Eckel became a Unified partner. She also volunteers with other Unified sports, as a scorekeeper in flag football and a lane assistant in bowling.
Courtney wanted to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, Haley Eckel, who’s volunteered for Special Olympics for several years and was a Unified partner on the Land O’ Lakes soccer team that went to the World Games. (Haley is also a former standout varsity soccer player at Land O’ Lakes and now a sophomore midfielder at Florida Southern College.)
The involvement has proven rewarding for Courtney.
“It’s really great,” she said of being a partner. “It’s so nice to see (the athletes) when they can do something good and score, and see the excitement on their face and know that they can do whatever they want to, and, it’s nice to play with them and help them achieve their goals.”
Courtney, too, believes Unified programming has been beneficial for promoting acceptance among all students.
“I think it’s really important because it keeps everyone included,” she said. “It teaches people how to be inclusive, even if someone’s not special needs. Just teaching how to include everyone and almost be like more understanding and respectful to everyone and their needs.”
King noted many Unified partners and volunteers develop bonds and tight-knit relationships with the athletes, adding that many continue as Special Olympics volunteers and participants through adulthood.
“It becomes just like a way of life,” said King, who still remains in touch with many of the athletes even after they’ve graduated from Land O’ Lakes.
In addition to the bonds they form, King noted that many local Unified athletes excel in their sport — regardless of intellectual or developmental disabilities.
King put it this way: “Sometimes the developmental delay is only academic. It has nothing to do with your physical capabilities, so a lot of our athletes are awesome athletes, so that’s why a lot of times on the field we’ll get called for player domination, rather than partner domination. Everything’s supposed to be equal, but we have some really good athletic partners and good athletes, so it makes a great combination.”
In all her years working in Special Olympics, King’s favorite memory comes as no surprise — the 2015 trip to Los Angeles.
“World Games was the best event — opening ceremonies and just the whole experience,” King said. “When we were out there, everyone just wanted to take pictures with us.”
Making Pasco proud
Pasco County has about 1,100 athletes and 500 Unified volunteers participating in more than a dozen sports, according to Special Olympics-Pasco co-director Val Lundin.
Having a trio of Pasco schools earn national recognition for their Unified programs is a testament to the commitment of those athletes, volunteers and coaches, she said.
“We’re very proud. We’re proud of all our athletes and our coaches,” said Lundin, who’s been involved with Special Olympics for more than 35 years, oversees the county’s Unified programs.
“It amazes me — Pasco County’s pretty small in comparison to many of the counties around the state, yet when we take our (state games) delegations, we’re always in the top five, as far as the amount of athletes, so we’re up there competing with the Orange and Miami-Dade (counties), which I think reflects well upon our program here. We’re obviously doing something right.”
Lundin also heaped plenty of praise towards King, who she said helps set the standard for many other Unified school programs in the county.
King was named Special Olympics Florida Coach of the Year in 2015.
In addition to dedicating her time toward Special Olympics, King is one of the state’s top varsity girls soccer coaches — guiding Land O’ Lakes to the state semifinals the last three years and winning a state title in 2003.
“There’s not enough you can say about Vicky,” Lundin said. “She’s just an amazing coach. She’s an amazing person. She just has a way about her that can bring the best out in her athletes and her partners. It’s just a reflection upon her and her club — the CEC club is one of the largest in the county. It takes a lot of time and work, and on top of it, she’s one of the top varsity soccer coaches in the county. She’s tireless, and she works hard. She believes in the program and her students, and it shows every day.”
National Banner Unified Champion School standards
A National Banner School must meet 10 standards of excellence among four categories, including unified sports, inclusive youth leadership, whole-school engagement and sustainability.
- Unified Sports is offered in at least two seasons throughout the school year.
- Unified Sports participation occurs regularly over the course of each sport season or school term and includes competition.
- An adult coach for each sport has received training on Special Olympics Unified Sports.
- Unified Sports is officially recognized by the school in a similar style as other athletics and activities.
- A Unified Club or student group offers leadership opportunities and training for students with and without intellectual disabilities.
- The inclusive club meets at least once per month throughout the school year.
- The inclusive club has an adult liaison and is officially recognized by the school in a similar style as other clubs.
- At least two whole-school engagement activities are implemented per school year.
- Students with and without disabilities are involved with planning and leading the awareness activities.
- The school is currently self-sustainable or has a plan in place to sustain the three components into the future.
These 10 standards of excellence were developed by a national panel of leaders in education and Special Olympics. A school meeting the standards is eligible to receive national banner recognition.
Land O’ Lakes High School is one of 13 Florida schools to be named a 2018 Special Olympics National Banner Unified Champion School.
Other recipients are: Seabreeze High School, Stirling Elementary School, Homestead Senior High, Park Vista High School, Lely High School, Longleaf Elementary School, Seven Springs Middle School, Plant City High School, Lawton Chiles High School, Leon High School, Tavares Middle School and Immokalee High School.
Published October 31, 2018