It may be tough to crack a varsity roster at a 6-A high school like West Linn, but the Lions are roaring with a program that offers an equal playing field for students with special needs to compete with peers.
WLHS has a strong special education department and a supportive student body. The Special Olympics Unified Champion School is a warm embrace of inclusion, acceptance and respect.
This was recently seen as the Unified Soccer team took to the pitch for Senior Day. The Lions' Unified Sports Program has meant the world to the kids involved like Tanner White.
“It's meant compassion, it’s meant teamwork and it's meant lots of work,” White told FOX 12. “But it's meant gaining friendships with kids with and without disabilities – equality.”
It's been a win-win in the Linn since the birth of the Unified Program five years ago.
“My first year, there were like eight of us, and now, you see everyone out there, there are about 20 of us now,” player Chuck Emerson said. “I know that's still pretty small, but we are definitely growing.”
School officials said this has been about more than developing the kids’ athletic skills.
“Young people with autism who struggle a bit socially, this has been a huge impact on conversations in the halls, conversations in the classrooms, feeling included everywhere they go and getting the high-fives and heads-up from everybody in school,” WLHS learning specialist Julie Holson explained.
Head coach and English teacher Alex Close played Division 1 soccer at Oregon State, and he said one of the best parts of the program is that it is putting all kids on equal footing.
“The whole program is designed so that there is no difference, and sometimes people will say, 'Is that an athlete or a partner on the field?' and it doesn't matter. That is the whole basis of the program,” he said. “Students work really hard to make it an inclusive place and make everyone have a home here.”
“We're all a team, we all treat each other with respect,” junior partner Olivia Reynolds said. “It's just an awesome way to start my morning because we have practices twice in the morning, so I love just starting it in a positive way and in a good mood.”
The good vibes earned WLHS a banner as it was named one of 38 schools in the nation to be honored as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, recognition the students take pride in like it was a championship.
“Sometimes I feel like everything we do just isn't recognized by anybody, and having that banner in the gym along with all of our other state championships, everybody sees it,” Emerson said.
Though the soccer season is over, West Linn Unified is taking its act back indoors for the basketball season. To learn more about the program, please visit WLWV.K12.OR.US.
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