Northside Lanes was full of smiles, sounds of encouragement and high-fives Thursday morning. Special-education students from North Augusta, Midland Valley, Silver Bluff and South Aiken high schools practiced bowling for the upcoming Special Olympics with the help of general-education students.
The bowling event was the second activity held this school year through Project Unify. Each school received a $1,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education through Special Olympics. The purpose of the grant is to encourage interaction between general-and special-education students by engaging in competitive activities and fostering positive social experiences.
“The goal is to have our regular-education students and special-education students work together on skills,” said Lauren Caldwell, a special-education teacher at North Augusta High. “It’s about bringing them together and creating camaraderie, teaching sportsmanship and building life skills.”
Project Unify began last school year at Midland Valley High, which was the first school in Aiken County to have the program.
“It has helped regular-education students get involved. It has opened eyes, and they see that they really aren’t as different as they thought,” said Katherine Thompson, a special-education teacher at Midland Valley High. “It has created an environment of acceptance and tolerance at the school. Students are kinder to them and see them as a part of the school.”
The schools have Be a Fan clubs made up of general-education students. The members teach their peers in special-education classes about sportsmanship, the sports they are playing and provide encouragement and support on a daily basis.
While the club at North Augusta High has about five students – one student per two special-education students — the impact of the club has resonated through the student body, Caldwell said.
“We have so many more students coming and asking our special-education students to come and sit with them and their friends during lunch. They are engaging in conversation and including them in activities,” she said.
Auburn Smith, a 10th-grade student at North Augusta High, participated in bowling Thursday and is a member of the Be a Fan club.
“In high school, you hear people making fun of people. But I’ve learned you have to get to know somebody before you can judge because everyone has a story,” she said.
“All of these students are really sweet, and it’s been really inspiring being a part of this. It makes me want to do it more in the future.”
The interaction is an important part of Project Unify, said Salvatore Minolfo, the director of special programs for Aiken County Public Schools.
“Their peers are excited to be a part of this,” he said. “That’s what school should be about – understanding differences and learning to work together despite those differences. It is helping to build good relationships between the students.”
While the students are having fun, it also addresses their occupational therapy needs, Caldwell said.
“We never had anything like this before. It is fun, but this is also a part of their goals that we set for the students,” Minolfo said. “They are learning life skills and social skills through this, so it’s not just all fun and games. We are helping them reach those goals.”
Minolfo said he hopes the program will expand next year to include at least six of the county’s seven high schools.