One Goal in Mind
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Clovis Unified School District (CUSD), known for its diversity and acceptance, has once again raised the bar with the addition of the Unified Soccer program. In this program, special needs athletes combine with general education student-athletes to create a soccer team for each of the five CUSD high schools.
“I think the initial push was to bring competition and bring unity to sports and to Clovis Unified,” said Unified Soccer coach and special needs teacher Josh Smith. “I also think that initial push comes from something that’s pretty big in the special education industry: inclusion.”
As made clear by Smith, the idea of inclusion is pushed not only at a local level, but nationwide as well.
“What inclusion is is not having different classrooms, not having different sports, and not having different things for people with special education,” said Smith. “It’s sort of challenging the staff and students to learn how to work together and make the changes necessary to make sure all students are taken care of and involved at all portions.”
“Just because they’re in a different class — in my opinion — doesn’t mean that they can’t do this because in the last 6-7 weeks they have picked up on everything that anybody else can do,” said Unified Soccer and varsity boys soccer coach Danny Amparano. “There’s a lot more appreciation and respect.”
At the beginning of the program, what to expect was a strong variable for the coaches and the players.
“When I first set the curriculum, everything was based on teamwork and games and counting on each other and understanding the positives and negatives and the feats and victories and how we get stronger together,” said Amparano. “That was the biggest thing.”
This kind of athletic unity has introduced a whole new realm for students with special needs.
“They don’t [typically] get to play sports, they don’t get to have all the people, they don’t get to have the sort of attention that other athletes do,” said Hensel. “This is a good thing; we get to see them have that feeling.”
“Unified Soccer helps unify what used to be kind of two different populations of students together into one form of competition and one sport, something that the general population of students has been able to enjoy for years and years,” said Smith.
In fact, many of these students are participating on a team for the first time.
“For me to be on a team feels awesome because I like being on the soccer team,” said senior special needs athlete Michael Paxman. “It feels like we are a family together for Clovis High School.”
“It feels sweet to my heart, like everyone loves,” said junior special needs athlete Vincent Lopez.
This type of opportunity is unique in a way that it truly does bring life to the word “unified” in multiple aspects.
Aside from athletic goals, this program provides for a social opportunity that is not seen everyday. In most cases, students with special needs are excluded from the “families” that many athletes are able to be a part of.
“Now that I know all of them and I see some of them around campus, it’s like they’re no different than anyone else. I’ll say ‘Hi’ to them and have a conversation,” said Hensel. “It’s cool to see that because a lot of the times it’s kind of like they’re not included with all of our friend groups but now they are.”
“We’re working out a lot as friends and helping each other out,” said junior special needs athlete Stacey Horton.
This type of camaraderie is like no other, as the unification of these players has opened doors for all students alike.
“I think the most powerful thing for me, personally, that I’ve noticed is the immediate bond between all students and as a special education teacher I was really excited about what it was going to do for my special education students,” said Smith. “The most powerful thing for me is seeing how much it’s impacted and influenced the general education students versus my students.”
“My favorite is hanging out with my friends, practicing, having fun for the games, and having fun with my two coaches which is Mr. Smith and Danny,” said Paxman.
For junior Tyra Dunning, a special needs athlete, her desire to play soccer sprouted from the wish to try something new.
“To me, I feel like it’s special,” said Dunning. “I just had the feeling that I wanted to play even though I don’t usually play soccer.”
Paxman’s wish to play soccer grew out of his desire to play soccer like his sister Tiffany Paxman, a Clovis High class of 2016 alumnae who had played when she was in elementary school.
“The reason why I want to do soccer is because my sister used to do soccer when she was [in] maybe fourth or fifth [grade] so she [could] maybe teach me how to [play] soccer,” said Paxman. “I want to do soccer like her. I want to become like my sister, Tiffany.”
Although aimed towards the inclusion of special needs students, this program has proved to be quite the experience for the general education soccer players as well.
“They’re just so sweet and they love us so much,” said freshman soccer player Quincy Kalustian. “It lets us both be included.”
“Honestly, going to practice everyday and seeing them super excited to play and just have fun [is my favorite part],” said Hensel. “Even if they feel like, you know, maybe we lost a game or something like that, the next day they’ll be super happy to learn a new move or just to practice and it’s really cool.”
Overall, it’s programs such as this one that truly bring the whole community together in order to reach one goal. It’s schoolwide support that can move a mountain.
“They have the football team supporting our kids when they’re walking out, we have the general population of students just pumped up, we have administration coming to visit them and helping the kids know they’re important to the school,” said Smith. “Just seeing those things happen, it’s been amazing.”