Champions Together

Lauren Berta, News Editor

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Special needs students from both Homestead and Carroll ran through a banner held up by cheerleaders on Friday, Feb. 16, holding their arms up and smiling broadly.
During halftime of the SAC conference championship basketball game, Homestead hosted a Champions Together event.
During the game, athletes dribbled the basketball on either side of the court, encouraged by their partner athletes and bystanders who passed them the ball when they lost it.
The most special part of the night was when an athlete would score. The response from the student section was overwhelming and the support was palpable. The audience was engaged and responsive to every move the athletes made.
The program that organizes these events, Champions Together, came to Homestead in 2014. It involves only a few sports so far: track and field, basketball and soccer.
Champions Together is a program for special needs students to participate in school sports alongside other students outside of the special needs department. It is part of an effort to integrate people with disabilities and people without disabilities.
Special needs students participate with a partner who helps them during practices and the game.
To become a partner, there are call outs before each sport that Champions Together participates in. Partners must get a physical and be able to attend practices with the athletes.
“Partners have all different career interests: medical, art, music, etc.,” Michelle Hoffacker (Champions Together faculty sponsor) said.
The program is a new and incredible opportunity for special needs students who have not been able to interact with other students in this way before. This does not just extend to the relationships between the partner athletes and the athletes, but also the support that comes from the whole school.
The Champions Together program has “broken down barriers between special needs students and normal students,” in part due to the “student section support,” Hoffacker said.
The special needs hallway is a little isolated from the rest of the school. Most kids only use it as go-between to get to other classes, if they go down it at all. Most students will not have a class with anyone in the special needs hallway, but Champions Together breaks through that isolation.
Champions Together “helps (the special needs students) feel like they are a part of Homestead,” Hoffacker said. “The community of people is good for them.”
One special needs student, Griffin Tutweiler will be the first student from the program to receive a letterman jacket, something most students at school do not think twice about, but is a special gift for participants in Champions Together.
Because the Champions Together program includes a Unified Sport, track and field, it means athletes in track can participate at different levels, attend state meets, and are able to get letters, which are unique opportunities.
Being able to participate in Homestead means so much to the special needs students. During personal interviews, several of them shared that they enjoy interacting with new friends outside of school and that they love playing basketball.
The new interaction with other students and the ability to participate in activities they had not before has allowed the special needs students to grow substantially.
“They get better at communicating, socializing and gaining confidence,” Hoffacker said. “They have a willingness to try new things.”
The positive outreach is not just to the special needs students but also to their parents and families.
“Parents see the growth in their kids and they love that their kids feel like a part of Homestead,” Hoffacker said. “It also makes the parents feel like a part of the community.”
The Champions Together programs allows special needs students to see themselves and their community in a different light. They compete side by side with students without disabilities, and experience aspects of being a high school student they had never been exposed to before. The relationships that the athletes form are the most beneficial and long-lasting result of the program.
“(Partner) athletes stop seeing the disabilities and see them as friends,” Hoffacker said.

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