Special Olympics

Student athletes and their partners, all from Mountain Point High School, gather Monday for the formal announcement of the Unified Sports program in Arizona. The students participated in a flag football game during the DI football state championship game Saturday.

Stacie Spring/Tribune

Derian Spivey and Dillon Janger, students at Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee, spend at least one day a weekend together. And while they normally grab a pizza lunch, last Saturday they played flag football against a group from Marcos de Niza during half-time at the Division I Football State Championships.

"I like throwing the ball," Janger said with a shy smile. "It was exciting playing in front of everyone."

Spivey and Janger are paired together as part of the Big Buddy program, but now they will also be teammates on a Unified Sports team.

Starting this year, Arizona Interscholastic Association and the Special Olympics of Arizona are working together to bring athletic opportunities to student athletes with intellectual disabilities who wouldn't normally be able to compete at the high school level.

"It's a way to be inclusive to all," said Harold Slemmer, executive director of the AIA. "It's a nice avenue to connect regular ed. students with special needs students. There are benefits for everyone involved."

Student athletes with intellectual disabilities are paired with students without intellectual disabilities on sports teams and together they will practice and compete in five different sports. This partnership is believed to be the first like it in the country.

"By getting students involved and getting them to know and build friendships with athletes with mental disabilities, it's no longer a pity party," said Tim Martin, Special Olympics of Arizona CEO. "Instead, it gets people to say, ‘Let's appreciate the great in everybody.'"

So far, 91 schools in Arizona have committed to playing at least one AIA Unified Sports for this school year. Sports opportunities include basketball, golf, flag football, cheerleading and track and field.

While schools have to deal with state and local cut budgets, a lot of those cuts are swallowed by after-school programs. However, this program is easy to implement and won't cost very much money to run, Martin said.

"Most of the facilities are already there," Martin said. "Volunteers will do most of the coaching and these are people who believe very strongly in this."

While jerseys and the like may have a few costs, the money for the program is provided by a grant from Special Olympics International and the resources of the AIA.

"The benefits vastly outweigh the minimal costs," Martin said.

Those benefits include getting to be a part of the "family" environment that a sport team can create, Slemmer said.

That's an environment that Spivey (Janger's Big Buddy) knows well. She plays varsity golf for Mountain Pointe.

"I knew I wanted to do this right away," Spivey said about joining the Unified Sports program with Janger. "It's a great program and it helps others feel accepted."

To learn more about the program, visit the Special Olympics of Arizona website at www.soaz.org.

Contact writer: (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

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