WHS soccer team grabs attention of Special Olympics

It would be a dream come true for any youth sports team, and for the eight members of Wilsonville High School’s Unified Sports soccer team, the experience was especially sweet. Having the highlights of their match broadcast to 67,000 spectators at halftime of a major league game was just one bright spot in a weekend trip to Seattle that also included a rally, sightseeing, a clinic with professional players and special seats at a game between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Members of the WHS Unified Sports soccer team pose in the Portland Timbers uniforms they wore during their Aug. 26 trip to Seattle.The event — and the Unified Sports league — was organized by Special Olympics and, locally, by Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, director of student services for the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. The Wilsonville students were in Seattle from Aug. 23 to 26 representing their high school at the Special Olympics Cascadia Championship Series. The team was accompanied by two coaches, Cheri Canfield and Dawn Wilson Betts.

“We started this journey in the fall,” Spencer-Iiams said. “Special Olympics sponsors an event called Youth Activation Summit.”

Students from Wilsonville, West Linn and Arts and Technology high schools as well as Athey Creek Middle School attended the summit at the Nike campus. YAS draws attendees from all over the state.

“It’s very student inspired and student owned,” Spencer-Iiams said.

At the summit, students interacted with their peers in different activities meant to encourage inclusion and then regrouped with their own school groups to choose one activity to take back to their home school. Unified Sports was one option, and the Wilsonville students decided it was a good fit.

Last year, recruitment began at WHS with a variety of students invited to a pizza lunch. Though the invitation was open to all, students who already were connected with special education students through programs like peer mentoring were especially encouraged. A group of 12 committed students gradually coalesced. Membership is fluid, with the goal being an equal number of athletes and partners, meaning students with developmental challenges and those in the general education program.

“Our goal is that it’s a team,” Spencer-Iiams said. “It’s really a chance to participate in sports, equally.”

The WHS team joined a league that also includes teams from Hillsboro, Sherwood and Forest Grove. Special Olympics supports the league, providing funding for uniforms and transportation. The remaining costs are funded from the student services budget, Spencer-Iiams said.

The Unified soccer team played a shortened season last spring. Just like every other school sports team, they traveled in a bus to games, wore uniforms on game days and hosted a game day at WHS. Attracted by the program’s success in Wilsonville, that day drew special guests including the head of the Oregon Schools Activities Association and a group from Special Olympics, who brought a professional filmmaker.

With plans to start a Unified basketball team this year, Spencer-Iiams is pleased with the program so far. Noting that one of the school district’s goals is to create an inclusive culture, she said this program is making a difference.

“It’s really changing the way kids relate, in the halls and in the lunchroom,” Spencer-Iiams said. “It changes our young adults in really powerful ways.”

One young player, Katy Corcoran, considers the program an unqualified success. She enjoyed her time on the team and is eager to recommend it to other potential players. A 2013 WHS graduate, Corcoran currently is enrolled in the adult transition program at Arts and Technology High School. She plans to play on the Unified team again this year.

“I think our team should be bigger this year. More people should play on our team,” Corcoran said. “I want our team to get bigger. I want it to expand through beginners through experienced ones, the experts.”

With a full Unified season behind her, on top of five or six years’ experience playing indoor soccer, she sees herself as a player in the middle of that range. And as much as she enjoys playing in games, she enjoys the practices more.

“The games are fun, but I really like practice, because if you don’t practice you don’t do very good,” she said. “All special needs kids should do it. It didn’t really matter if you have a disability. It only matters if you like doing it.”

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