Hundreds of special and general education students from throughout the Tri-Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area gathered at Dublin High School last week for the Tri-Valley annual soccer competition as part of the Special Olympics Northern California Schools Partnership Program.
Students from more than a dozen middle and high schools participated in the competition, for which they had been training for weeks at their schools. Outside, the student-athletes played full-blown soccer games, worked on their mechanics at skills stations and tested out Dublin High School Robotics Club’s ball-launching machine. Inside a nearby DHS gym, students with and without disabilities played Unified wheelchair soccer games. Students with disabilities also had the opportunity to work on their kicking skills using a motion-capture simulation that allowed many students to kick a soccer ball.
“It’s a huge undertaking to get everyone together – volunteers, students and schools,” said Jill Pulliam, staff secretary of special education at the Dublin Unified School District. “The kids make the event.”
Chrissy Booe, a Granada High School special education teacher of 18-22-year-old transition students with disabilities, said the students involved are now getting a chance to grow up with each other and become close friends. She said the annual soccer competition gives special education students at the schools an opportunity to shine.
“Oftentimes, they’re not given an opportunity to play and have their peers cheer them on,” she said. “For the general education students, they get to see how our special education students are exactly like them. They work hard and have fun. Every year, we’re getting more general education support.”
The soccer competition included dozens of volunteers, including general education students from local high schools, such as Dublin High’s Katie and Kameryn. Katie volunteered for Special Olympics Northern California before, while Kameryn was seeing the effects Special Olympics has on athletes’ lives for the first time.
“Special Olympics is the best thing to do,” Katie said. “It’s rewarding seeing the (student-athletes) play and get that experience.”
Dublin High’s Robotics Club members Tim and Liubou said that building their soccer ball propulsion device is different from a typical competitive robotics activity. Rather than trying to one-up each other, the team worked together to create something that would bring the most joy to the student-athletes at this sports competition.
“I like seeing the special education students happy with what they accomplish,” Liubou said.
Also volunteering at the competition were U.S. Army members stationed at nearby Camp Parks. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Bryan Carr’s duties included smiling and giving high-five to athletes. Carr said the students inspired him, and he developed a new appreciation for communication with them, even if communication didn’t involve exchanging words.
“A lot of people will ignore someone with special needs, but there’s no need for that,” he said.
Teachers spent weeks preparing all of the athletes for the competition. Some of them were longtime members of the Special Olympics Northern California Schools Partnership program, but others, like Fallon Middle School teacher Deborah Johnson, were seeing their first event close-up.
At Fallon, general and special education students participate in physical education classes together, which has led to a new level of acceptance from the general education students, she said. An event like the soccer competition is very important for Johnson’s students.
“It stresses to students how important it is to be physically active,” she said. “Playing soccer is cool.”
Schools Partnership Program events also introduce special education students to Special Olympics. Some students receiving special education services and their parents might otherwise not pursue athletic competition as an option for their children. All student-athletes who compete in the Schools Partnership Program during the school day can also compete in Special Olympics Northern California’s evening and weekend and program.
Michael and Karen came to support their son, who is a student at Livermore’s Mendenhall Middle School. It was Dustin’s first time at a Special Olympics event and his first time playing soccer.
“To watch our son have a chance at normalcy is important,” Karen said. “His differences don’t stand out. His limitations aren’t limitations here. He’s having fun out there.”