Everybody has a right to play: Lowell celebrates inclusion with Special Olympics soccer

By Stephanie Li

Originally published on January 7, 2015

A team huddles around and prepares for play. Photo by Zoe Kaiser

Amidst screams of “You can do it, Wash,” “Go Lowell!” and other cheers of encouragement, a group of students dressed in their respective schools’ colors battled it out on the soccer field.

These students, members of special education programs from all over the city, visited Lowell on Nov. 14 from Blocks 3 to 5 to participate in the San Francisco Unified School District Special Olympics School Program’s annual soccer event.

“We set up the program so that each student will feel valued and successful.”

The Special Olympics School Program aims to bring together special education students and allows them to partake in team-building sports while promoting inclusion, a child’s right to participate, in the community. It’s a partnership between SFUSD and the Special Olympics of Northern California, an organization whose mission is to provide athletic opportunities to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Any student involved in an Individualized Education Program, a program tailored to each special education student’s specific needs from preschool-aged to transition-aged, which is post-high school until age 22, was allowed to participate in the event.

Access SFUSD: The Arc, a program for post-high school students with disabilities, and four high schools — Washington, Galileo, Marshall and Lowell — visited Lowell to take part in the competition. “It’s a great chance for all district programs to come together and reunite with old teachers and friends,” Marshall’s transitional program teacher Alyson Furnback said.

Sophomore Joey Bechelli (right) and an opponent race after the ball. Photo by Zoe Kaiser

Teams of five played 15-minute rounds of soccer on smaller-than-standard fields. Most of the students have disabilities that keep them from being able to play at a level that would allow them to play for their school’s competitive team, according to SFUSD Special Olympics coordinator Paul Zager. “We set up the program so that each student will feel valued and successful,” Zager said.

Despite Lowell’s 2–1 loss to Marshall in the first round, Lowell team coach Vladimir Talian said he was pleased by the team’s spirit. “They showed team play, which is very important,” he said.

Lowell’s teamwork earned them a win in the second round, in which they beat Access 1–0.

“It’s a great chance for all district programs to come together and reunite with old teachers and friends.”

Though referees kept score, emphasis was more on having fun and playing well rather than on prizes, according to Zager. Instead of receiving medals or rankings, students were awarded for participation. “Each student is acknowledged for their efforts when they receive the participation ribbon during the closing ceremony,” Zager said.

Team members in each school got to know each other better and learned how to work together as they trained for the tournament. Talian said that he focused on teamwork during practices with the special education students. “We practiced passing and not just going off by themselves,” Talian said.

The Special Olympics further promoted inclusion by enabling regular education students and teachers to interact with special needs students on and off the field during the event.

Physical education teachers Thomas Geren and Milton Axt brought their students to cheer on Lowell’s team during the matches. “We just want to show support to all students and show that we appreciate and honor all of them,” Geren said.

Senior Andrew Ngan dribbles the ball in a soccer match on Nov. 14. Photo by Zoe Kaiser

Best Buddies, a volunteer club at Lowell with a mission to create opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also helped out with the event. In addition to motivating the teams, Best Buddies volunteers helped with the opening ceremony and acted as time keepers and line judges.

“We just want to show support to all students and show that we appreciate and honor all of them.”

This year the school was chosen to host the soccer event over last year’s site, Balboa Park because there is so much support at Lowell. “Lowell has 2–3 classes that I work with each year, a supportive administration and a Best Buddies program,” Zager said. “It seemed realistic to hold a Schools Program high school soccer team tournament at Lowell.”

When the event ended, many had smiles on their faces. One of Lowell’s team’s members, senior Andrew Ngan, thought the event was fun. “I want to keep doing the Special Olympics,” Ngan said.

Lowell also received the “Whole School Involvement” banner during the opening ceremony, which commemorates the school’s efforts to host events for students with special needs.

Best Buddies club president senior Tyler Perkins and principal Andrew Ishibashi after receiving the “Whole School Involvement” banner. Photo by Zoe Kaiser

“I’m really excited to do more inclusive school events in the future.”

Principal Andrew Ishibashi and Best Buddies club president Tyler Perkins accepted the banner at the opening ceremony. “I’m really excited to do more inclusive school events in the future,” Perkins said in his speech.

Including the soccer event, Lowell has organized three events on its campus in the past years. The others held on campus were the Buddy Ball, a dance for special education students, and the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign which raises awareness about using derogatory language towards disabled persons.

Best Buddies participants carry the ceremonial torch before the Olympic Games begin. Photo by Zoe Kaiser