Taking refuge from Saturday’s downpour, about 20 young people, some with special needs and some without, retreated into Carrboro High School’s gym to play flag football together.
Anna Broome, 17, planned the event to fit the vision of the partnership between Special Olympics North Carolina and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. The groups want to bring mentally disabled students in contact with students who are not disabled.
Broome did, too, and her event was the first organized by a student in the state.
The inspiration came last July when she attended a meeting of the Special Olympics and the athletic association as a member of the association’s Student Athletic Advisory Council.
“We talked a lot about how we could make a partnership between special needs athletes and general ed high school students,” Broome said. The goal of Project UNIFY, which came from that partnership, is to promote what the groups call “unified sports.”
“The goal of unified sports is to have half the team be general education and half the team be special education,” Broome said.
Though no one told her how, she planned the event, got people to sign up, held a practice session, had blue and green T-shirts available for players and managed to hold the event in spite of the rain.
She wanted to hold it last fall but got caught up with college applications. “That was a chaotic time for me,” she said. The Carrboro High School senior is set to go to Princeton University this fall to study engineering.
Her leadership stood out to A’Lisa Tello, vice president of program innovation for the state’s Special Olympics. Tello said the flag football game was the first school-based unified sports competition in North Carolina through the partnership of the Special Olympics and the athletic association.
“It’s kind of a big deal,” she said. “Anna is a great example of the student leader showing initiative.”
When Project UNIFY began in fall 2008, only nine North Carolina schools participated. Now, Tello said, 231 schools engage in the program. Events are usually coordinated by Special Olympics rather than students, she said, but they all have a “huge impact.”
“It is really kind of amazing,” she said. “It creates a much greater awareness, a much greater acceptance of people of disabilities.”
With eight or nine students on each team, the Carrboro gym soon filled with yells and laughter. James Scott, a 17-year-old basketball star at Carrboro High School, started the morning by leading the students in stretching. He counted to 10 and switched stretches. Then the students each shared their names and something interesting about themselves.
The play started around 9:45. No one kept score.
“They mostly don’t keep score at this level,” said Kyle Dover, of Chapel Hill. He keeps his 20-year-old daughter, Zoe Kofodimos, involved in Special Olympics for the exercise and the social outlet.
“She’s got motor problems. She’s got balance problems. But she’s having fun,” Dover said.
Kofodimos, who has a mass of curly, chocolate-brown hair, jogged in her tennis shoes among the other players on the court.
Students with special needs can stay in school until they are 21, Dover said.
“They stay in school longer because there really aren’t many options after school,” he said. “There aren’t jobs. There isn’t as much of a social network. For many of these kids, Special Olympics is one of the better social outlets.”
Events such as the one Broome planned give non-special needs students a chance to socialize with special needs students. Freshman Grace Nanny, 14, is not special needs, and said she was glad for that chance.
Nanny got involved with the school’s Special Olympics club when she met with Broome, who was sitting at an informational table during lunch. “I started talking to Anna and got interested,” she said.
“It’s cool being able to play with them,” she said.
In gym class, the seven or eight special needs students practice separately. “We never really get to talk,” Nanny said.
Scott agreed. “You’re meeting people you normally wouldn’t meet,” he said. “Their awesome personalities – they’re people like all of us and they should have fun with us, too.”