By Tara Cavanaugh, AAPS News Service
Next week, nine Pioneer High School students are going on the trip of a lifetime: they’re competing in the Olympics.
To be more specific, the special education students are competing in the Feb. 7-10 Winter Games organized by the Michigan Special Olympics in Traverse City. But this opportunity makes the students feel anything but different or special: in fact, it makes them feel like regular kids.
“It’s a normalcy for them,” said Kathryn Glanville, special education department chair. “Because their peers are athletic, playing basketball and football. This is a way for them to compete and really do well at their level.”
Kathy Natelborg, whose daughter Megan is participating in the Winter Games next month, is grateful for the opportunity. Megan, who is 20, has Down’s Syndrome.
“It’s actually very challenging to be a part of a social or athletic endeavor as a special needs student,” Natelborg said. “The fact that this is designed for Megan and others like her is really what distinguishes this.”
The experience teaches the students patience, teamwork, coordination and perseverance, Glanville said. “We did practices over winter break, and there were kids who came out and they practiced on vacation. They know that in order to do well to be competitive, they’ve got to really work on it.”
The students have been practicing and conditioning nearly every day. Whether practices were held indoors or outdoors, they are often joined by general education students.
General education students can take an elective class during which they learn to be peer mentors to the special education students. They can also drop in during their lunch times to help their peers practice for the Special Olympics.
One of those lunch drop-in volunteers, Jibreel Hussein, is an athlete who stands well over six feet tall. Yet when he raced around the gym with student Ariana Birdsong during one rainy day last month, he acted as though his long legs were weighed down by cement blocks. Birdsong giggled at his antics, and passed him to the finish line amid cheers and applause from the class. When Hussein finally finished, he gave her a hug.
“We’ve had a lot of athletes come in and help out during running and different training exercises,” special education teacher Terry Weaver said. “High school, me, that age? You never would have seen me doing those kinds of things. They’re really amazing kids, that’s for sure.”
Each time the students attend the Olympics (such as the Winter Olympics next month or the Summer Olympics in June), it costs around $5,000 to $6,000 to attend. This includes participation fees, transportation and lodging, special education teacher Cassandra Brower said.
“It’s going to be an every-year scramble, because there’s no money set aside for it,” Glanville said, adding that she’s thankful the Pioneer Parent Teacher Student Organization and student councils have helped with fundraising.
Brower also asked the Special Olympics to help offset costs for this first year by sharing some money from federal funding for a national program called Project Unify. The Special Olympics also allowed the team to borrow snowshoes to practice with and will supply students with snow wear when they get to Traverse City.
Brower has also helped get some students get proper snow wear by searching secondhand stores or her own kids’ closets.
In the future, Brower would like to work more closely with the other area schools, so that more students can attend the summer and winter games. Huron High School will also attend the Winter Games this month, and has done so for more than 15 years, according to Patty Carden, special education teacher at Huron. Ideally, Brower would like to open the opportunity to middle and elementary schools too.
“Next year we’d like to expand it a bit, and just invite AAPS students, because there’s a lot of our students who are just not participating at all,” Brower said. “We want to make it bigger, but we just had to get it started.”
First, they have to go to Traverse City, where the students face a jam-packed schedule full of time trials, races, dances, ice skating, tug-of-war games and much more.
“I’d like to thank Cassandra Brower, who has been the mastermind behind this,” Natelborg said. “It takes a huge amount of effort for a school to participate, particularly when it’s their first time.”
Natelborg has watched her daughter Megan participate in the Summer Special Olympics, and she knows that Megan is “more likely to look around and make sure her friends got a good start than she is to look at the finish line and go,” she laughs.
No matter how Megan finishes, “I’m delighted that she’s as well prepared as she is to participate at the state level,” Natelborg said. “It will be a well-organized, exciting event for her to participate in, so I’m very, very pleased that she gets an opportunity to do it.”