MT. VERNON — —
Mt. Vernon Township High School freshman Lauren Long said being part of the school's newly created Unified Soccer Team has broadened her group of friends.
The team brings together Special Olympics athletes and their “peer partners” at MVTHS. And so far, the experience has been an enriching one for Long.
“I think it's really neat because it's people I normally wouldn't get to hang out with or see at school,” said Long, one of the team's peer partners.
The MVTHS Unified Soccer Team will compete in its first tournament Oct. 12 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.
The eight-member team includes four Special Olympics athletes and four peer partners.
The Special Olympics players are students with an intellectual disability. The other players are their “typically developing” peers. All are MVTHS students.
By partnering these students, organizers hope to foster a more tolerant environment at the school, said Megan Clodi, Special Olympics athletics director for MVTHS.
The team was formed as part of the school's extra-curricular program known as Project UNIFY, which focuses on peer unity and equality. To date, it is the only unified team of its kind in Southern Illinois, Clodi said.
“Ultimately, it is a way to be able to come together and learn each other's strengths and weaknesses and to help build tolerance and acceptance,” Clodi said.
The team has been practicing for a few weeks now and Clodi is pleased with the results. During practice, the team plays scrimmage games and runs basic drills to test their skills.
So far, the team's favorite drill has been “Keep Away.” In this activity, one player stands in the center of a circle surrounded by their teammates. Team members then try to keep the ball away from the center player.
“I think the best (thing) is that we work with regular students and it really brings us together,” said MVTHS sophomore Mariah Bocock, a Special Olympics athlete on the team.
Clodi said the team will compete against well over a dozen other teams in the upcoming tournament.
“I think it works to help build up and give a good peer model to our Special Olympics athletes on the actual skill of soccer,” Clodi said of the program. “It can also teach humanity and be character-building for the peer partners.”
MVTHS is the only school in this area with a unified soccer team. However, the program is also open to other local schools.
Clodi said she would like to see more local schools get involved so the MVTHS team does not have to travel so far to compete.
“The biggest challenge is not being able to have local games against other unified soccer teams,” Clodi said.
For more information on the program, contact Clodi at 246-5819.