LAS CRUCES, N.M. — With a mix of enthusiasm and some shyness, each student involved in the Special Olympics at Mesa Middle School stepped up to the first-place podium and received a red medal for competing.

The Special Olympic collaboration between Mesa Middle School and Picacho Middle School had been a work in progress for months.

While ensuring COVID-safe practices, the team of educators worked together to give special education students the opportunity to participate virtually.

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Classes from both schools spent two months meeting on Zoom to prepare for the modified Winter Olympic events. Karen Sivils, a physical therapist at Las Cruces Public Schools who helped coordinate the Special Olympic events, said the students also learned to sing and sign the National Anthem, practiced the Athlete’s Oath, practiced announcing events and learned about sportsmanship.

Last week, the events began with an opening ceremony and ended with an in-person awards ceremony on Friday.

“We made it really accessible to a wide range,” Sivils said. “We had our kids who are announcers — who are the kids who have more talking skills — they’re able to read the scripts. Then, we have kids who can’t even walk, and they were able to still participate … One of the things I love about working with (these) kids is that they’ve never known anything different for the most part. Their joy and their enthusiasm is just boundless.”

About 35 students participated in the events.

George Spencer, a seventh-grade student at Mesa Middle, said his favorite event was flag football.

“It gives him something special to participate (in),” George’s father, Al Spencer said. “I know he looks forward to it, and is just so well organized. I’m grateful for the program also.”

George, who has Down syndrome, participated in several competitions this year, including flag football, volleyball, basketball and bocce ball.

“It’s a challenge to have anything going on these days (because of COVID-19),” Al said. “We welcome the idea that it gives him something to do … and get some sunlight (and) a little exercise.”

George has participated in many Special Olympics in years past, and often competes with his older sister as part of Project UNIFY, which partners special education students with general education students for competitions.

This year, Anna Houdeshell, recreation therapist at LCPS who helped coordinate the Special Olympics events, said they decided it would be too difficult to coordinate with general education students without being in-person. But the students enjoyed participating all the same.

“Being at home individually has really taken a hit on what students,” Houdeshell said. “The opportunity to do something like this, where we can all see each other on Zoom, and you still feel like a team has just been so amazing. This is the first time I’ve seen these kids in a year.”

Houdeshell said the staff worked very hard to make these events happen. When they began the planning, they had no idea that hybrid or full reentry was a possibility. Houdeshell said this made planning easier over time, especially the in-person award ceremony.

The students all cheered one another as, one by one, they took to the podium and were given their medals by Las Cruces Police Department officers.

Parents mostly stayed in their cars parked in front of the ceremony or a distance away from the staff organizing the event.

Sivils said that the encouragement the students showed each other brought tears to her eyes at times.

“First day, one of the kids from (Mesa) … and some of the kids from Picacho were on a group Zoom,” Sivils said. “(He said) ‘I just wanted to say to you guys from Picacho … this is gonna be a great day and I hope everyone does wonderful.'”

“When we would get on Zoom, the kids would start talking and cheering each other on,” said Hallie Shelton, an occupational therapist at LCPS who helped coordinate the Special Olympic events.

The group later met in a virtual hot chocolate social Zoom to wrap up the week of Olympic events.

“It took a lot from all the staff from both schools to just really communicate to plan this, but all of the staff really, really wanted to work hard and communicate,” Houdeshell said. “It’s hard for the students I think sometimes to understand the Zoom versus in-person, but they did so well adapting to that.”

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