LHISD on fast track for first Special Olympics
By Dana Delgado
For the first time ever, local special needs athletes will have the opportunity to participate in the Special Olympics as part of Team Liberty Hill.
Entry into the Special Olympics by the Liberty Hill Independent School District is a major victory for local special needs students with intellectual disabilities. Previously, interested local athletes competed as unaffiliated athletes with limited support. Beginning this academic year, they will be a part of a coordinated and unified effort within LHISD.
The initiative to introduce Special Olympics into the school district in 2014-2015 was spearheaded by new Special Education Director Elyse Tarlton whose philosophy is punctuated with a single question: “How can we change our own culture to be truly inclusive?” Special Olympics reflects that philosophy and as such was one of her priorities on her ambitious “must do list” to broaden the expanse of opportunities for special needs students as part of her strategic plan to further enhance inclusiveness in the district.
“We’re excited,” said Director Tarlton. “This is a first for Liberty Hill and I feel Liberty Hill will embrace it.” State Special Olympics Program Associate for Central Texas David Johnson said they are thrilled about Liberty Hill’s entry into the Olympics.
“We’re very excited for the opportunity to partner with Liberty Hill ISD,” Johnson said. “LHISD is a model district that is already employing some inclusive curriculum and activities for their disabled and non-disabled students. We’re just fortunate to come in, support what’s already happening on their campuses, and do our part to foster the growth and development of further inclusive programming going forward.”
In preparation, the LHISD is on a fast track to get ready for its first team of athletes.
“This is the first time we are participating in the Special Olympics as a district,” said Special Education Teacher Marcy Brooks. Mrs. Brooks was a volunteer with the Olympics while she was a student at the University of Texas and has coached individual special needs athletes. “This is a new activity this year and we are in the process of learning the deadlines, necessary paperwork, and general logistics at a fast rate.”
A number of teachers and volunteers will be attending required training later this month to be certified as Special Olympics coaches. Mrs. Brooks said the impact of participating will be far-reaching.
“The value of students participating in Special Olympics include becoming more physically fit, joining a larger community of peers, making connections with people of all abilities within our community, and learning skills they can continue to use after leaving the district,” Mrs. Brooks said. “Students will have the opportunity to compete in sports perhaps for the first time of their lives. Special Olympics has the potential to add a new dimension in their lives that can last a lifetime.”
She went on to say that participation also impacts non-disabled individuals and the community at large by providing greater opportunities for understanding, cooperation and teamwork.
Special Education Director Elyse Tarlton added that while the Special Olympics encompasses 22 sports including aquatics, gymnastics, cycling, volleyball, bocce and soccer, LHISD will focus on track and field events in its inaugural year, which are slated for May 1, 2015 in Austin. Last year 815 athletes competed from 37 delegations in Area 13 which includes Austin and surrounding communities. Besides the traditional track and field events, athletes can compete in various modified events such as the 10m assisted walk, 10m wheelchair race, 25m motorized wheelchair obstacle race, 30m wheelchair and motorized wheelchair slalom and the tennis ball throw.
Other sports, however, are being considered for the first year including basketball in February 2015 and summer softball. In addition, bowling competition for local athletes will begin in the fall of 2015 with some special needs athletes from the ACCESS 18+ program already practicing their bowling skills in Georgetown.
District officials anticipate a delegation of 25-35 athletes of various ages this first year. Coaches across the district including Kasey Faurie, Christina Gamez, Holly Kociuba and Lori Truslow will be assisting with the preparation of the field of athletes.
Christoper Klepper, a newly-hired adapted physical education teacher, has been appointed as the school district’s Special Olympics coordinator by Mrs. Tarlton. He has over four years of experience working with students in special education and has attended several Special Olympics events. He previously worked with the Austin Independent School District.
Coach Klepper is a graduate of Westwood High School in Austin and is a former National Junior College Athletic Association All-American tennis player at Tyler Junior College before attending Illinois State University. He coached tennis at Cornell University and recently directed a computer camp at St. Edwards University. He completed graduate work at Texas State University.
With a “never give-up” philosophy, the positive, high-energy and creative coach will be working directly with special needs students at all campuses besides coordinating the Special Olympics for LHISD.
“As a district, we are gearing up for track and field,” Coach Klepper said. “That’s a really exciting event because of the wide variety of activities. There can be something for everyone.”
To participate in Special Olympics, athletes must have an intellectual disability and have a completed Athlete Enrollment/Medical form on file. Students age two to seven can participate in the program as young athletes and are taught basic but non-competitive skills. Athletes ages eight and older participating at area competitions, are required to train for eight weeks prior to competition including at least one local competition or two scrimmages. To advance to state competitions, athletes must be 12 years or older and have participated at an area meet.
Mrs. Tarlton said that she hopes to establish a Special Olympics partnership with Hope House, a Liberty Hill residential home for individuals with severe challenges so participation can be enhanced.
Within a few years, but as early as the 2015-16 school year, Director Tarlton believes the district will be ready to embark onto the evolving concept of “unity teams” in the Special Olympics. Unified athletics brings together disabled as well as non-disabled athletes on the same team and is part of Project UNIFY – Meet in the Middle (MiM).
According to state Special Olympics officials, Project UNIFY Meet in the Middle (MiM) is a unique program designed to promote acceptance and inclusion among students with and without intellectual disabilities and grounded in friendships, fitness and sports opportunities. Project UNIFY emphasizes three core components — Youth Leadership & Activation, Unified Sports and Whole School Involvement.
Implemented in 2008 through funding from the U.S. Department of Education to the Special Olympics, Project Unify has grown exponentially. Mrs. Tarlton said the district expects to be very much a part of unified athletics for the benefit of all students and the entire community and invites the public to get involved.
For more information on Liberty Hill’s participation in Special Olympics or to volunteer, contact the school district’s special education office at (512) 260-5590.