After getting involved with the Project Unify program at Midland Valley High School, Abby Harper became the mentor of Travis Miller, a special needs student who uses a wheelchair.
“He's so lighthearted and happy and so grateful for anything, like a little matchbox car that he loves,” Harper said. “It just puts everything into perspective, that I can be more of a loving person and not be so quick to judge.”
Area 15 Special Olympics, a three-county region, will host a breakfast at FATZ restaurant on Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m. Proceeds will go to the program's activities – among them the Special Olympics Spring Games and Project Unify, a buddy program for middle and high school students. About 700 special needs children, teenagers and adults from Aiken, Saluda and Edgefield Counties, attended the Spring Games in 2013 at Midland Valley, which will again be the site in April.
Project Unify, sponsored by S.C. Special Olympics, brings together special needs kids and others at their schools as their friends and mentors. The program got its start in Aiken County at Midland Valley through teacher Kathy Thompson.
In conjunction with Project Unify, student buddies at the school work through the Youth Activity Commission. They plan and support events, such as the swimming and bowling teams for the special needs students and their buddies. Other schools provide touch football and basketball.
Ashley Benson got involved with Project Unify at LBC Middle School, where her mother, Cora Benson, is a special education teacher.
“I started with the school's Buddy Club four years ago, and it has inspired me to be a better person,” Benson said.
Two of the special needs buddies, Damitrius Blocker and Tierria Butler, said they like having so much fun with the other students.
Three years ago, as an eighth-grader, Baleigh Padgett participated in the Special Olympics Games for the first time.
“The most interesting thing is what a fun experience it is,” she said. “You learn about yourself and understand what special needs kids can do and how they feel. I realized how extraordinary they are and that their hearts are so big. It's a blessing.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.