Special needs students, peers unite for track and field meet

Wherever Nathan Dickmeyer went, Cory Otero was right there by his side.

During track and field events, Otero ran with him and cheered him on. While playing games, smiles and laughs were shared.

The practicing the eighth graders had done during physical education class at Seymour Middle School was all for the opportunity to be a part of the third annual Champions Together track and field meet.

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The event, conducted Friday at Seymour High School’s Bulleit Stadium, is a collaborative partnership between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics Indiana that promotes servant leadership among student-athletes while changing their lives and the lives of those with intellectual disabilities.

Otero said he considered it a great honor to be selected as a peer helper since he doesn’t have opportunities at school to interact with special needs students.

“I think it gives everyone an opportunity to be together, show that we’re all the same,” Otero said. “It’s an awesome opportunity. I like being with him, socializing with all of the other peer partners and working with them to get better at this stuff.”

During a break from carrying a plastic egg on a spoon, Otero expressed how much fun he was having with his new friend.

“I get the fun opportunity to be with him and with everyone else, and I just love it,” he said. “I have a little brother that has autism, and I just love hanging out with him. I know they don’t get this opportunity very much, and it’s the world to them. I wish they get to do more.”

The event drew more than 200 athletes and peers from Seymour-Redding, Seymour-Jackson, Emerson and Margaret R. Brown elementary schools and Seymour Middle School.

It all started with a parade of teams, as each school went through a chute created by Seymour High School students volunteering at the event.

Then school resource officers Chadd Rogers and Jack Hauer flanked Brown fifth grader Andres Miguel Miguel as he carried the Flame of Hope torch before the national anthem was played and the Pledge of Allegiance and Special Olympics athlete oath were recited.

It was then time for the athletes, from preschool to eighth grade, to go to their track and field events and play games.

The running events consisted of 25-, 50- and 100-meter dashes, 400-meter and shuttle relays and 25-meter hurdles. The field events included standing long jump, running long jump, basketball toss and softball toss.

Stations on the turf field included Frisbee toss, ring toss, a parachute ball game, racing with cardboard cars, carrying a plastic egg on a spoon, walking through a “car wash” with bubbles and more.

Miguel said he was selected to carry the torch because he had worked hard in the classroom and practices.

In the events, he competed in the two relays.

“I liked running fast and helping others and cheering for them,” he said.

He also tried the parachute ball game and other stations.

“I like having fun and being with peers and other kids,” Miguel said. “It’s good to have some fun at the end of the school year.”

Medals and ribbons were handed out for the 100-meter dash, 400-meter relay and field events.

“It feels like you worked hard enough to get these awards,” Miguel said.

Xavier Ramos, a preschooler at Jackson, said he liked participating in the track and field events, and his favorite station was walking through the bubbles.

For the teachers and other staff members, the meet was an opportunity to see the students in a different light.

Kristin Keltner is an occupational therapist who spends time at all of the Seymour schools.

“I’m more used to seeing them one-on-one or with an adult, and this is so much more fun for me to see them be social and get out and be able to do things with their peers and the students in their grade level,” she said.

While her daily job is rewarding, Keltner said it goes up a notch during Champions Together.

“This is a whole community, and it’s so nice just to be a part of something bigger than even my job,” she said.

Kathy Sunbury is a physical therapist for Seymour Community Schools, and she has been a part of Champions Together since it started here three years ago.

She likes seeing the students compete and earn awards.

“They have adaptive PE now, and they never really get to do competition like this where they get to work for an award or a medal, so it’s super exciting to see them get that medal at the end of it,” Sunbury said.

“It has to be super exciting for them and also for the parents to even see that they made that accomplishment,” she said. “They practiced for several weeks and learned what activity they were going to be doing. It’s rewarding for them, for us and for the parents.”

Champions Together takes a lot of people to pull off. That includes the core team of PE teachers, Sharon Wood, Bob Wood, Noelle DeHaven and Amber Williams; the corporation’s director of special education, Mika Ahlbrand; and assistant director of special education, Marykate Helmsing, meeting to organize the event.

The PE teachers work with staff members at the schools to pair peers with special needs students, and they practice the events at school.

Then for the day of the meet, there were more than 80 volunteers helping man the stations, jot down times and distances and do other tasks. Even the high school band and drill team marched around the stadium and performed during the competition.

“I think what has made it successful is our support from Seymour Community Schools,” Sharon Wood said. “Just the cooperation and trying to get the staff together, they have definitely put their whole heart into this program. That makes a big difference.”

Seeing all of the schools come together for a day of fun is exciting to Wood.

“This is one of the most rewarding days as a teacher that we have just to see all of the happy faces, the interaction between our peer coaches and our athletes. It’s just simply amazing,” she said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever organized and/or worked with because of the different moving pieces.”

The ultimate goal is to get kids excited about track and field so they will join the unified team at Seymour High School. Participation in that sport grew from 17 last year to 40 this year with an even amount of special needs students and peer helpers.

“We keep trying to challenge our athletes to get them ready for the unified track team,” Wood said. “This is our second year of piloting doing the time trials for the 100 meters. That’s the only event we time, so they get used to that. In that event, ‘I run without my coach. I have to try to get to the finals.’ And this is the second year we’ve included the 400 relay. It’s just getting them going around a track.”

Another purpose of the meet is to build the Special Olympics program in Jackson County. That fizzled out in 2016 before being revitalized in the fall of 2017. It has been going strong ever since, offering a unified fitness club and softball, basketball, track and field and horseshoes teams.

“That has happened thanks to some great volunteers,” Wood said. “We wanted to create that awareness in our community that Special Olympics is here. We have some amazing athletes. We have kids that want to work with these athletes, and personally, that makes me boom because our team is back up, our team is active.”

It’s all a win for everyone.

“I think some of our families, some parents were like, ‘Wow! Look at our kids. We’re fantastic. Let’s give them the same opportunity,’” Wood said. “Each year, we keep working with Special Olympics Indiana to just really try to see what other schools are doing, helping make our event bigger and better.”