The human heart’s longing to belong has no boundaries and its desire to achieve is limitless. It doesn’t matter to whom it belongs. As a teacher at Wylie, there wasn’t a year that went by in the 6 years I was in the classroom, that I taught a student who didn’t desire to belong and who didn’t have dreams – not one.
Recently, Wylie High School (WHS) implemented a program for all students to find their place and build skills that will help achieve their dreams. It is called Unified Bulldogs, and it brings students with and without intellectual disabilities together to build friendships and participate in all types of school activities. Reagan Berry, principal of WHS, said the Unified Bulldogs qualifies the school to be a Special Olympics Texas Unified Champion School, which is a program that breaks down barriers between students and engages them to build meaningful relationships.
“All kids matter, they want to be a part of something, and they want to make friends, no matter what diagnosis they may have,” said DeeDee Baker, who is coaching the Unified Bulldogs sport team. “This program means the world to me. It is just one more way that Wylie is opening the doors for inclusion.”
The Unified Bulldogs team is a natural fit for Wylie. Students with intellectual disabilities already participate in many of the extracurricular activities on campus including football, cheer, FFA and theater. Now with this program, the students will be able to try new activities, meet new people, and compete against other Unified athletes.
Students in Unified Bulldogs either participate as an athlete or a partner. Baker said the number of partners depends on the number of athletes. Currently, Unified Bulldogs is held after school, but next year it will be a leadership class. Baker said students who want to be partners will complete an application and submit three letters of reference to take the class next year. Students who want to participate as athletes must be identified with an intellectual disability.
Melia Heinz, a freshmen Unified Bulldogs athlete, said she enjoys the activities, but being with friends is her favorite. “I really enjoy getting together as a team and with other classmates.” She and her fellow Unified athletes meet weekly to learn new sports and then will get to compete against other Unified Special Olympic teams from other places.
Baker sees the benefits of the program from an educator and a parent perspective. She has taught for 29 years (24 for Wylie) and has a son in the program.
“As a parent of a special needs child, this is so important to me, but as an educator to see teenage students without intellectual disabilities want to step-up and make a difference in their school and their peers’ lives – I can’t even describe how wonderfully special this is.”
Junior Dennis Marquardt, a Unified Bulldogs partner, said many students at Wylie already have a desire to include students with intellectual disabilities and build “genuine friendships.”
Junior Kolby Corbett said friendships were the basis for him serving as a Unified Bulldogs partner. “The friendships I had already made with several of the Unified Bulldogs athletes was the reason I wanted to join,” he said. “I love those kids and the conversations and jokes we share mean a lot to me. I wanted to continue that.”
Baker said the investment of the partners into the athletes will have a ripple effect. “These partners are the leaders of tomorrow, and they are helping make leaders of tomorrow out of kids who struggle, and the world sees them as less just because they have been labeled with a disability,” said Baker.
The Unified Bulldogs are just getting started, but Corbett believes the program is bigger than Wylie. “I think Unified Bulldogs at Wylie can serve as a way for more programs like this to start up,” he said. “Of course, Wylie isn’t the only big school in Abilene, so I think if other schools in our area took up a Unified team, the impact on these kids could be more widespread.”
And Baker couldn’t agree more. “God is opening doors for these partners and athletes and big things are going to happen in the lives of so many – not just the athletes and the partners – but in the school and the community,” said Baker. “I can’t wait to stand back and watch.”
By Kristen Johnson