Thanks in part to a new program started this year at Logan Elementary, fifth grader Ahmed Hejazi has made a lot of new friends this year. Some have disabilities. Some don’t.
And the fact that it just doesn’t matter is the whole idea behind Special Olympics’ Project Unify.
“This whole thing is really great,” says Ahmed. “Kids like me get to interact with kids with disabilities and get to know them more often and know what’s going through them. It’s a good opportunity to know more kids.”
Asked about some of his new friends, Ahmed looked around the room.
“I know Ellie, and I know all these other wonderful kids,” he said, motioning to the group. “Over there is Zak and Gloria and Anthony and the teacher is Miss Milstead and holding her hand is Moatez. And there’s a bunch more.”
Kim Millstead, a special education teacher at Logan Elementary for K-1 students, runs two Special Olympics programs at the school:
Young Athletes is an after school program where 12 disabled and non disabled peers ages 5-8 learn sports, partnership, teamwork, and friendship.
Project Unify is a group of 22 disabled and non-disabled students who meet to spread the message of respect, care, kindness, friendship, and decision making, and do campaigns and projects together.
Millstead said that when she started Project Unify, she went to each classroom to talk about it.
“Every single kid wanted to be involved with helping people care about each other,” she said. “Every hand was raised in every classroom.”
There couldn’t be 350 kids on the team, so teachers helped picked the team, and the rest of the student body gets involved in specific campaigns.
“The thing that’s really cool is that kids have developed relationships with each other, they’re not doing it to be a caretaker of someone; they’re doing it to be a real friend,” she said.
An example is the friendship of Gloria and Loryn, two first graders who have become good friends both at school and after school.
The fact that one of them has a disability is a non-issue because at Logan, inclusion is more than just a concept.
“A real friendship developed even though one student is mostly non-verbal and the other is a typically developing first grader,” said Kim. “They made a real connection.”
Early in the school year, the Project Unify students decided to do a “I Commit to Care” campaign in which everyone in the school received a blue “I Care” button for showing that they cared about someone through an act of kindness, and every student, teacher and staff signed the “I Commit to Care” banner in the hall.
“I thought it might be of interest as this year Ann Arbor was focused on the word `care,’” said Millstead, noting that the students met every other Friday to work on the campaign.
They ordered 350 blue buttons that say “I CARE” and each of 22 kids were to give a button out to every one in school caught being kind or caring to someone. The students talked about it at a school assembly, so everyone knew to actively seek out opportunities to be caring in the classrooms, at lunch, recess, and specials.
Ahmed said he has enjoyed being part of Project Unify, and that it has made a difference in his own life.
He said it doesn’t matter how a student looks, talks, or acts.
“No matter what,” he said, ”every single kid is special in their own way.”