Benefield: Schools’ partnership with Special Olympics building teams

Competitors met in soccer matches, first of three sessions this academic year.|

Claudio Dominguez took a pass on the right flank and was off. He made a nice move and then struck the ball with the outside of his right foot. Goal.

“I still need to practice some moves and some other plays but if I get a chance to see an open (net), I go for the shot,” Dominguez, a Montgomery High senior, said.

That goal was one of four goals that Dominguez scored Monday for Montgomery at the Special Olympics’ Schools Partnership Program fall event in Santa Rosa.

More than 250 special education students from middle and high school campuses in Santa Rosa as well as Windsor, Sebastopol and Rohnert Park, spent more than three hours Monday at Epicenter playing soccer and representing their schools in the program that is now in its third year. The school partnership program differs from the community-based Special Olympics in that it encourages regular training programs through schools and coordinates events i-n which athletes represent not just themselves, but their schools.

Locally, three events this school year are planned: Monday’s soccer event, a basketball competition in March and track meet in the spring.

“What I like about it is everybody starts moving instead of standing still and not doing nothing. So it’s fun playing against competitive people,” Dominguez said.

The goal is for special needs athletes to train one or two times a week learning the skills of a specific sport. After six to eight weeks, the “Olympic” event is held replete with opening and closing ceremonies, officials and medals. And plenty of cheering.

Like the traditional Special Olympics program, the schools partnership focuses on athletics but also puts an emphasis on bringing a school’s general education population into coaching and volunteering with athletes.

The percentage of general education students who don’t have any interaction with students with special needs is “staggering,” according to Beni Comma, an adaptive physical education teacher with Santa Rosa City Schools and one of the event organizers. When that divide isn’t dealt with, everyone loses out, he said.

“The general ed population learns so much from these kids,” he said.

Sports provide common ground, a place for kids to share interests that may then translate into other connections, said Ashley Spooner, program service manager for the Special Olympics Schools Partnership Program.

“It’s a way for students who are passionate about that sport to try and share that passion,” she said. “It’s ‘Hey, we both love soccer,’ it’s an easy way to connect when maybe you don’t have another way to connect.”

And you don’t even need a passion for a sport to make a connection. In some cases, you just need a shared experience.

“Personally I would see some people that I never usually see around school since we are so separated and I think it’s cool that I can be able to go up to them and be like ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and just have an actual conversation,” said Montgomery junior Haley Presar, who helped organize Monday’s event. “Usually I wouldn’t talk to a person if I didn’t know them but now that I get to meet all these wonderful people it just makes it so much easier to go up to them.”

There was a wide array of skill on display Monday but the level of enthusiasm was fairly consistent: sky high.

Wearing her “Senior” shirt from Santa Rosa High, Kiana Singkeo sought to make everybody know who she was before the games even began. The nickname on the back of her jersey? “Legit Boss.”

“Coming out as ‘Legit Boss,’ nobody ever comes near me,” she said.

Monday’s event was a chance for her to shine “being a soccer player, being athletic,” she said.

That’s something some students take for granted, said Cora Logan, a junior at Montgomery who helped coordinate Monday’s event.

“They don’t get to be on a team and play against other teams,” she said. “This gives them a chance to do that.”

And sports are an avenue for confidence and connecting with other students, no matter their background.

“It’s more about making them more comfortable instead of awkwardly staying to the side,” she said. “It’s good.”

Montgomery students took the lead role in hosting the Monday’s event. Junior Alan Soto, a standout on the Vikings defending North Bay League championship team, helped MC the event.

The upcoming basketball day will be hosted by Santa Rosa High. The Epicenter’s Goals Foundation paid for the buses to bring the athletes to and from the event, Sports City donated field space and staff, Rockin’ Jump opened their trampoline facilities and paid staff, and Innovative Screen Printing provided team shirts for the athletes, according to Lisa Alexander, community relations director for Epicenter Sports and Entertainment.

For Santa Rosa Middle School eighth grader Hunter Jaggars, the competitive juices were flowing early.

“I feel kind of nervous but I fee like I can beat other people and hang out with my friends and play against them,” he said.

Jaggars said the training sessions prior to Monday’s competition got him ready but he was still feeling the fatigue of multiple games.

“A little bit, but I’m still going to go play,” he said.

For some students, it wasn’t the specific sport that was the draw, but the chance to be on a team and represent their school.

Ashlin West-Craig, a seventh grader at Slater Middle School, manned the goal for his team Monday morning, shouting out directions and generally cheering on his squad.

“I just play for fun,” he said. “I’m not much of a player. I’m more of a baseball person.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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