Nicole Chedraoui and Gabrielle London
This past week, Heritage High School’s athletic department was bustling with the impending excitement of the Special Olympics. The event, carefully planned and thoughtfully curated, finally arrived on Wednesday, April 26th. The 9 o’clock bell commenced the event, and at its commanding ring, the participants headed through the school to the side fields, livened with the infectious chatter of anticipation from students and teachers adorning the hallways. This sportive and joyful air was indicative of the wholly positive mood which was to define the event. The collaborative, heartfelt effort from the organizers was touching, as it was clear they gave attention to every little detail in hopes of making the day perfect for our student athletes.
Upon hearing about this event being brought to Heritage High for the first time in its short history, we naturally wanted to see what exactly this day of fun would entail. It’s safe to say we were blown away by the collaborative enthusiasm between Coach Sloan and the entirety of the Special Education Department. Together they had put together an exciting event, featuring a roster of fun field-day classics such as basketball shots, hula hoop ring toss, bowling pin stations, and elephant-trunk knockover. The excitement was kicked up a notch as the kids participated in even more Olympic-style athletics such as football and softball distance tosses, T-ball, the fifty yard dash, and the standing long jump. In short, it was a day designed for cheerful, uplifting camaraderie, and we couldn’t be more invested in this branch of Heritage’s continued drive for inclusivity and fun.
In order to paint a full picture of the day, we started directly at the source: dedicated teacher and diligent athletic director, Coach Scott Sloan. When we approached Coach Sloan to pick his brain about the planning of the Special Olympics, the high regard he held for his special needs classes was clear. So, unsurprising it was that when being asked about the importance of physical education within the Special Ed department, Sloane expressed genuine earnestness in his explanation. “Special Ed students are students,” he stated, affirming an important truth, “Just like any student needs to develop motor skills, health-related fitness, and [to have] the opportunities to compete in playing games that are enjoyable, they are no different in my eyes than any other student in this school. They deserve the same opportunities that every student deserves.” As someone who has certainly found herself limited in the entirety of physical fitness, Mr. Sloan’s integrity and devotion to inclusivity was heartwarming to say the very least.
In asking Mr. Sloan’s overall hopes for the upcoming event, he said that he, “hopes that the special needs students enjoy the day, enjoy participating, enjoy competing, and enjoy the camaraderie of being out there. I hope that all of our other students that participate with them value the inclusion, value the opportunity to assist others, and they enjoy the day meeting and hanging out with new friends.” It’s clear that the day being planned was not only about physical fitness, but about valuing every individual within our community as a whole. As we further transcended into talking about promoting inclusivity within the Heritage community, Mr. Sloan was firm about the importance of the topic. “I think Heritage does a wonderful job of including all students, it’s a great school to work at for all students with challenges, but with that being said, I think society in general, and this includes Heritage, can always do better. Not just for these students, but for all students in general.”
Heritage was actually supposed to participate in a county-wide Special Olympics event at the Ravenscroft campus in Raleigh. However, plans were adjusted to a lottery system this year due to limited event space which left Heritage with plenty of space to create its own version. “So, once we saw that,” Sloan explained, “We stepped up and tried to create–and are trying to create–something for the kids here. We’re great collaborators, we’re great professionals, and at the end of the day, we want to do what’s best for our kids.”
As the event came to a triumphant close, so began the awards ceremony, intended to provide a stage for the recognition of Heritage’s special-education athletes. As medals and ribbons were adorned around the neck of each participant, we gained a true sense of the excitement and pride which swelled in the chests of everyone involved. The event was a massive success, and this time was apportioned not only as a way to celebrate the athletes, but to reflect on the schoolwide accomplishment that the day represented. Beyond its primary function as an enjoyable and sportive event for the special-education community at Heritage, it also is representative of the great strides which have been made for the advancement of special education programs and its students. It is hugely important to continue working towards inclusivity in education and our athletics programs–special education students are students, deserving of exactly the same opportunities and consideration as any other students within their same school. Heritage has proven that it not only agrees with and is devoted to this value, but that it can use its resources to further promote student inclusion and recognition. Ms. Drummond, advisor and teacher to the special education department at Heritage, stated following the event that “it’s just very heartwarming for me to see the school get together and clap for everyone–just to see everyone in the grade participating and joining made it all worth it.” Her words ring true for everyone involved; it is encouraging to be able to stand at an event designed for the benefit of special education students; students who deserve every bit of the support that for many years in our country’s history was not provided.
After the awards ceremony concluded, we stayed around a little while longer in order to speak with some of the athletes themselves, and to inquire about their opinions on the events and the positives of the day. Armando brought out truly Olympian qualities, winning five first place ribbons which he proudly wore. Basketball was named as his favorite event, an enthusiasm for the sport clear in his recollection. Another high-achieving athlete, Billy, was adamant about his enjoyment of the dunk tank, of which Coach Sloan was the target. He insisted and assured us that the tank was undefeated in popularity, a statement reaffirmed by many of the attendees. As for the other events, he explained that each were of relatively equal difficulty, but it was a fun time nonetheless. Athlete Megan was in certain agreement with Billy about the thrill of the dunk tank, a landmark display within the event. The events which she enjoyed the most included the throwing events and football, which were also fan-favorites of the crowd.
In addition to the athletes, the event was a big hit amongst spectators and those who came to help support the participants and set up the fields. Heritage’s student group PEPI was there for the duration of the day, making up the student support systems for the athletes and cheering them on from the sidelines. Allison Travis had an assuredly positive outlook when we interviewed her following the closing ceremony, noting that “it was a field-day-like event, and that while there was some gentle competition, the primary mood was of participation and enjoyment.” She, like the athletes and other organizers, listed the dunk tank as one of the things which would define the event and make it memorable for years to come. Upon entering the scene, we were met with an overwhelming amount of excitement and support by everyone involved for the special-education athletes. It was an enormous success, and it left the Heritage community wondering if this could one day become a tradition..
Upon closing out such a magical, special day in the Heritage community, I found myself feeling a variety of emotions. The most prominent one being pride. I am beyond proud to have found such a gem of a community, a community who selflessly and tirelessly works to make everyone feel included. In a world that continually fails to cater to those who are different, that day it felt like we were all one. The leaders of Heritage’s Special Health-Education program do something that so many other schools refuse to do; they celebrate each and every student. On that sunny Wednesday afternoon, the love that these teachers, these leaders, had for their kids was almost palpable, suffocating, in the absolute best way. There’s something indescribably healing about witnessing that much joy. When asked about the day’s success, it’s clear the event could only be measured in one valid way: the beaming smiles and echoed laughs that resounded on the trek back to class. It seems I wasn’t the only one whose heart grew three sizes more, and Coach Sloan agrees, “The best part of the event was seeing the kids with a lot of smiles; they all participated, they all won something, and they all had a lot of fun.”
Thank you to the following for their donations to the Heritage High School ECS Program:
7 Marks Community Church Life Group
A special thank you to Coach Sloan, Laura Alden, Lori Drummond, Mr. McCaskill, administration, Best Buddies, HHS Drumline, and the PEPI students for all of their time, planning, and commitment to helping our ECS students.
Here’s to celebrating inclusivity!