Franklin County High School Changes Community with Unified Track Team
Each year, Champions Together, a program created by the collaboration between Special Olympics Indiana and the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA), adds new unified teams to the field of competition. These teams consist of athletes with intellectual disabilities and unified partners without intellectual disabilities who work together as they compete in Unified Track and Field competitions. This year, Franklin County High School joined the roster and quickly made waves when they took home a sectional title at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. Their many triumphs, however, came with challenges and setbacks too.
Kanita Sirbak, coach of the Franklin County High School Unified Track and Field team, explained that there were “definitely parents who were hesitant.” But beyond just the scope of parents, she also ran into challenges getting athletes to become involved in the program.
“They were all too shy. We have a couple of really athletic athletes who just wouldn’t join the team because they didn’t want to be in the spotlight.”
Sirbak encouraged athletes to “just try it out,” which paid off as their hesitation turned to enjoyment. The challenges didn’t end there.
“It took about three weeks to get into the groove with [the athletes with intellectual disabilities]. I think they just had to form trust with our [partners without intellectual disabilities]. After that initial adjustment, they had a great time.”
One of the biggest triumphs of the season, according to Sirbak, was the opportunity to hand out 17 Varsity letters to athletes on the team. Seven of these letters went to athletes with intellectual disabilities who had “joy in their faces because they never thought that they would be able to letter and now, they have,” explained Sirbak.
Allyson Klei, an athlete on the team shared a picture of herself holding the sectional trophy explaining that “it made me feel like a real high school student in a sport.”
From there, the team gained the support of their community, who embraced them as athletes. The team secured local sponsors and proved to many that they were a group of individuals with great camaraderie and collaboration. The school principal and athletic director, as well as many others, came out to cheer for the team as they competed in the State Finals. The local police department also showed their support, giving the team a police escort out of the county on their way to Indiana University, where the State Finals were set to take place. At the end of the rainy day, the team took home a seventh place title.
“Talking to parents, it’s not just the athletes (with intellectual disabilities) who are benefitting. Every now and then, I’ll second guess myself, thinking, ‘I’ve got really good partners (without intellectual disabilities). They are really, really good kids. Did they come to me as really, really good kids?’ But their parents are coming to me and saying, ‘I have seen such a change in my kids.’ That’s really what it’s about. It’s about changing the acceptance and letting them know that we have ability.”
Sirbak also has high hopes for the long-term impact the program can make.
“These partners (without intellectual disabilities) are going to go to college, and they are going to come back to our community and start businesses, and they are going to know that our students are employable.”
Through Unified Teams like the one found at Franklin County High School, inclusion – on and off of the field – is continuously growing. Sirbak explained that she hopes the Unified Partners will remember the time they spent working with individuals with intellectual disabilities, and that they will remember the work ethic that these individuals have displayed through the program.
For more information on Champions Together, contact Lee Lonzo, LLonzo@ihsaa.org.