The U.S. Secretary of Education received a lesson in cause and effect this week, during House subcommittee hearings, in which she was grilled on the probable impact of her proposed funding cut. The questions centered on how many children who participate in America’s Special Olympics would be affected, if her recommendation to eliminate funding for the non-profit is adopted.
Secretary Betsy Devos admitted she didn’t know. That’s when a committee member instructed her: 272,000 American children.
There are hundreds of Special Olympians here, in Utah. ABC4.com went to a high school soccer match to meet a few of them, and to hear from them, their parents, and their teammates who help them discover abilities they didn’t know they had.
MORE THAN A SOCCER MATCH
What looked like a soccer match at a Riverton park was far more than that. It was what’s known as a unified sports event – the result of a partnership between Utah Special Olympics and the public schools. Today, Bingham, Hillcrest, and Riverton high schools were playing a round-robin tournament. Each team included special Olympians, paired with a mentor who helped them have as positive an experience as possible.
“It’s just kind of trying to make it fun, amp it up a little bit, you know?”
That was Hillcrest High School senior Sofia Herrera, a member of the team and a mentor to her special Olympics partner.
INCLUDING SPECIAL OLYMPIANS
Those two-person partnerships are part of a larger partnership formed more than a decade ago, between the Special Olympics organization and scores of public schools throughout the state. Utah Special Olympics President and CEO, D’Arcy Dixon Pgnanelli explains the purpose:
“To help students in elementary, junior high, and high schools create inclusive environments,” she says. “They’re tools. The funding was to give the students, the special education teachers, the administrators tools to build upon the already existing efforts to help create opportunities for those with intellectual disabilities.”
She’s talking about people such as Tanner Cluff. He’s a Special Olympian and Hillcrest High student, as well as a member of the Unified Sports soccer team. His mother says Tanner didn’t think he could play soccer, because he’s so tall and — he thought — slow of foot. Today, he scored seven goals in his two games.
“How tall are you?” I ask. “Six-eight,” says Tanner, adding he’s good at basketball, too.
It’s that confidence and positive self-esteem his mother says come from participating in the unified sports programs, through Special Olympics.
His mother is determined to see her teenaged boy grow into a successful man. And the immersive, inclusive partnership program between Utah Special Olympics and her son’s school is her best hope, she says.
“If the funding is cut, they lose those opportunities,” Julie Cluff says, through her tears. “And that’s devastating to our family, and devastating to the kids in our school.”
“Give us that continued chance,” Dixon Pignanelli implores. “Give us that continued support. And us is the students.”