Students get a chance to be part of a sports team
By Riley Morningstar
WALHALLA — The national anthem performed by the Walhalla High School Honors Choir marked an end to the opening ceremony, kicking off a day of fun for special needs students at four area high schools who came together for a day of fun and competition.
The recreational kickball tournament marked the beginning of the Unify Champions Sports season, according to Walhalla High special needs teacher and league coordinator Terry Buckallew.
“It’s their chance to be a part of a sports team and get out there with their non-disabled friends,” she said. “They’re part of the whole student body, and they’re accepted that way.”
Walhalla student Tori Hopkins said the program brings students together.
“We started the Unify Champions Club a few years ago, and this is a good way for all the schools to get together and just play and have fun, and it lets the kids have an exciting, fun day,” Hopkins said.
Walhalla hosted the Unify Champions Club Kickball Games, part of the Special Olympics, on Friday. Pickens, Seneca and West-Oak high school students also attended, bringing volunteers and game participants.
“I’m excited,” Walhalla student Ty Thomas said. “It’s a blessing, and it’s better than doing school work all the time.”
While being in the classroom is fun for Seneca High student Chinara Johnson, being outside with her friends counts as a day well spent.
“It’s fun being in the classroom with your friends, but it’s also fun being outside of the classroom,” she said. “It’s really great to have people around to help one another and each other like a brother or a sister.”
Hopkins, a helper for the day, said she hopes to be a special education teacher one day.
“I like to see how much fun these kids have,” she added. “I want to be a special ed teacher, and this is a great experience for me to be out here joining them and get the feel of how it’s going to be when I do become one. I just get to see how excited and happy they get when they play. They’re not rivalries like we are at regular sports. They consider everybody — themselves and other students — equal, and I think that’s just great.”
Pickens High student Keli Grace Powell deals with spina bifida and Williams syndrome daily.
“I have spina bifida and I cannot walk, whatsoever, without a walker, cane or whatever,” she said. “I battle with brushing my teeth, different daily things. I can’t put my clothes on by myself, I can’t get drinks off of the table or anything like that. That’s what I mostly battle with every day.”
Powell said that her faith is what keeps her smiling at all times.
“It makes me feel so good that God loves me this much,” she said. “This is what keeps a smile on my face.”
Powell’s mother, Janet, was in the stands cheering her daughter on during the game.
“Most of the time they’re pushed to the side, but today they’re not,” Janet said of the event.
“I have the best of both worlds,” she added, with tears coming down her face. “I have a 9-year-old that’s not special needs and an 18-year-old that is. It’s a challenge, but every minute is worth it. You find out just how strong you can be in times that you didn’t know you could be that strong.”
Throughout the morning, no one appeared preoccupied with a cellphone scrolling through social media on the field or in the stands.
“The people here today aren’t worried about social media or texting their friends,” Pickens High senior Jewell Porterfield said. “They’re more focused on everybody that’s on the field trip and playing kickball.”
Kevin Sosebee, parent of a Seneca High special needs student, watched the game through the chain-link fence.
“Everybody is focused on the kids and not what’s going on outside in the world,” he said. “She gets to feel like a normal kid and just enjoy it. This is something that they don’t get to do, play varsity or junior varsity.”
Those participating who didn’t have a smile on their face were simply focused intensely on the games.
“They just absolutely love it,” Buckallew said. “It’s not just one person that put it together, it’s the whole community that put it together.”
When asked what the best part of the event was, Porterfield said, “It’s not about winning or losing. We’re all just out here to play a fun game of kickball.”
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