The crowd roared and cheered as more than 200 student-athletes entered the San Clemente High School gymnasium for a friendly competition of basketball.
“You can do it!”
“This will be fun!”
“Let the games begin!”
Students from three high schools and four middle schools throughout Capistrano Unified School gathered on Monday, November 18, to participate in the seventh annual Special Olympics Fall School Games.
The great day of competition and fun changes the lives of students with intellectual disabilities by giving them a place to play sports, to compete and to recognize their own strengths and abilities. Students also have the opportunity to play in a variety of activities, games and enjoy lunch with their peers.
The program also changes the lives of all students, the campus culture and communities, creating a space for students with and without intellectual disabilities to work, learn, play and lead together.
“It’s so important to celebrate our students and bring our campuses together where everyone is included and they know how much we care about them,” said San Clemente High School Principal Chris Carter as he welcomed participants, family members, volunteers and colleagues. “I couldn’t be prouder, and I look forward to an inspiring day.”
Each student is paired with a Best Buddies member, an organization where students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and general education students form authentic friendships and cultivate independence.
Veronica Hoggatt, who chairs the Special Education Community Advisory Committee (CAC), said it’s heartwarming to witness a school culture of acceptance and respect. Her son, Josh, is a San Clemente High School senior with special needs.
“It goes both ways – not only is it positive for students with special needs but also so positive for general education students to experience classmates who are all differently abled,” Hoggatt said. “There’s this inclusion and it carries over into the rest of the school year.”
The special event featured San Clemente High School’s new cheer team which includes athletes with and without disabilities. The Triton Sparkle team, an all-inclusive group comprising teens from all four grade levels, is one of about 220 Sparkle Effect teams offered at schools throughout the nation. The Sparkle Effect is a national organization that works with schools to create their own teams to include those with disabilities, so they aren’t left out of a team-building experience during high school.
San Clemente High is the only school within the district to offer the program, but more schools are working to adopt their own Sparkle squads.
This year also marked the first year Shorecliffs Middle School participated in Special Olympics Southern California. The program provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.
Rachel Sutherland, who vice chairs CAC and is a mother of a daughter with special needs at Marco Forster Middle School, said she sees the happiness Special Olympics brings – not only to students with disabilities but the difference it has made to the lives of their friends without disabilities.
“It’s a challenge for our special education kids to create those relationships with kids their age,” Sutherland said. “This event creates and facilitates those friendships.”