The following blog post comes from Garret Lee, a Special Olympics Colorado volunteer & student at the University of Denver.
The past 5 weeks, I have had the privilege to be the lead volunteer for the Red Shirt Rookies* program at Summit Elementary School in the Cherry Creek School District. I came into Summit with plans to implement a nearly identical program to that of my Unified Sports team at Heritage High School, but quickly learned that the Red Shirt Rookies program was different. In fact, all levels of Project Unify are different, and each school is unique, which is part of the reason the program is so powerful.
While at first, the large number of Rookies was hard to manage, my group of volunteers and I grew to love the program’s flexibility. No matter what activities we had the athletes and partners do, they approached it with a smile on their face. Obviously, shooting the basketball was most of the kids’ favorite part. It was my favorite too, because I saw the most improvement. Seeing the smiles on kids’ faces that could barely shoot the ball but learned to make a basket was unforgettable.
While observing the skill development was exciting, the most inspirational part of the program for me was watching the growth in the children involved. At first, it was very apparent that many of the special needs athletes were uncomfortable around the partners, and the partners weren’t too open to be friends with the athletes. However as time went on, we saw friendships develop across the boundaries simply through passing a basketball… that was incredible. By the final cheer on the last practice, it was very apparent that many of these boundaries between the Rookies had been broken down and all of the kids felt comfortable around each other. It is inspiring to see that these children will soon be our leaders, and they will be doing it together. All of my volunteers and I are excited to see the upcoming boundaries that can be broken down in the spring, when this group of amazing Red Shirt Rookies hit the soccer pitch.
*Red Shirt Rookies is an after school basketball skills program for students with and without intellectual disabilities in grades K – 5. The young students work with local volunteers to practice their basketball skills and have fun getting to know their peers.