Millions of people around the world will watch the Super Bowl Sunday, but the 200 or so people who watched a Project Unify event at Silver Bluff High School Thursday seemed to enjoy those football games just as much.
Six teams of special education and regular education students combined to play round-robin flag football on the basketball court – all of it charming and light-hearted.
Project Unify is sponsored throughout the state by the S.C. Special Olympics and includes other sports as well.
In the fall of 2010, the agency contacted Kathy Thompson, a Midland Valley High School special education teacher, about a grant to establish Project Unify in Aiken County.
The football program got under way a year ago with four high school teams. Thompson is thrilled that six schools participated this year – Midland Valley, Silver Bluff, Aiken High, South Aiken High, Wagener-Salley High and North Augusta High.
Last year, special education student Jaclyn Martz of Midland Valley described how playing football is the best part. She scored touchdowns last year and happily remained a solid scoring threat Thursday.
“This will be my last time playing with the school,” Martz said.
Every year the program is evolving, Thompson said.
The total number of “buddies” from regular education nearly tripled this year.
North Augusta student Tre's Marks has severe disabilities and is confined to a wheelchair. His buddy, Autumn Freeman, has spent a lot of time with Tre's during gym.
“He's really excited today,” he said. “It's nice seeing all the kids learn. They're catching on, and that's good.”
Another buddy, Brielle Busbee of Wagener-Salley, learned a lot herself in partnering with Rontravius Williams.
“It's an opportunity to get to know each other in our schools and being friends,” Busbee said. “This has really opened my eyes, seeing that they're exactly like us and have feelings, too.”
Valerie Steen is halfway through her third year at Wagener-Salley and agrees enthusiastically with Busbee.
“It's a wonderful opportunity for those without disabilities to be with those who do,” she said. “It has brought our school together.”
Many teachers at North Augusta are becoming more involved and learning more about the special education students as well, said teacher Lauren Dukes.
“We're really working on it and making (Project Unify) bigger and better,” she said.
The high school teachers invited two middle schools to attend the event as guests.
LBC Middle School did make it, and their special education children and buddies were just as excited.
It's a great opportunity, said Allison Newbegin, because LBC will host a Project Unify basketball tournament with Aiken Middle School and Paul Knox Middle School.
“This time, Midland Valley will be our guest,” Newbegin said.