Darian Spivey and Dillon Janger, students at Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee Foothills, spend at least one day a weekend together. And while they normally grab a pizza lunch, last Saturday they played flag football against a group from Tempe's Marcos de Niza High School during half-time at the Division I state championship football game.
"I like throwing the ball," Janger said with a shy smile. "It was exciting playing in front of everyone."
Spivey and Janger, seniors at the high school, are paired together as part of the Best Buddies program, but now they will also be teammates on a Unified Sports team.
Starting this year, the Arizona Interscholastic Association and the Special Olympics of Arizona are working together to bring athletic opportunities to student athletes with intellectual disabilities who wouldn't typically compete at the high school level.
"It's a way to be inclusive to all," said Harold Slemmer, executive director of AIA. "It's a nice avenue to connect regular ed students with special needs students. There are benefits for everyone involved."
Student athletes with intellectual disabilities are paired with their mainstream classmates on sports teams and together they will practice and compete in five different sports. This partnership is believed to be the first like it in the country.
"By getting students involved and getting them to know and build friendships with athletes with mental disabilities, it's no longer a pity party," said Tim Martin, Special Olympics of Arizona CEO. "Instead, it gets people to say, ‘Let's appreciate the great in everybody.'"
So far, 91 schools in Arizona have committed to putting together at least one AIA Unified Sports team for this year. Sports opportunities include basketball, golf, flag football, cheerleading and track and field.
The organizations hope to spread the program to every high school in the state within the next three years, a goal that might be achieved since nearly a third of schools have signed on, Martin said.
While schools have to deal with state and local cut budgets, this program is easy to implement and won't cost very much money to run, Martin said.
"Most of the facilities are already there," Martin said. "Volunteers will do most of the coaching and these are people who believe very strongly in this."
While jerseys and the like may have a few costs, the money for the program is provided by a grant from Special Olympics International and the resources of Arizona Interscholastic Association.
"The benefits vastly outweigh the minimal costs," Martin said.
Those benefits include getting to be a part of the "family" environment that a sport team can create, Slemmer said.
That's an environment that Spivey (Janger's Best Buddy) knows well. She plays varsity golf for Mountain Pointe.
"I knew I wanted to do this right away," Spivey said about joining the Unified Sports program with Janger. "It's a great program and it helps others feel accepted."
To learn more about the program, visit the Special Olympics of Arizona website at www.soaz.org.