For over 20 years, Camden City School District has brought all students together for what they call the ‘Unified Special Olympics.’
The way it works is, over the summer, students who receive special education services team-up with general education students to prepare for the big day.
They district says it’s a way to promote inclusion.
“Our students have developed great friendships. They help one another. You’ll see some of the students holding hands, guiding one another. Some kids who may have physical limitations, their partners are helping them walk, helping them run. So it’s just awesome,” said Camden City School District Special Education Supervisor Charita Cooper.
NJTV News caught a glimpse of the kids competing in the 50- and 100-yard dash and spoke with a pair of students from the event, Nydia and Mackenzie.
“She’s my friend,” said Nydia. “She, maybe, doesn’t really know how to talk, but she can teach you something about how to be nice to people with autism and disabilities and she’s a very nice girl.”
Four weeks. That’s all it took for the 8-year-olds to become close friends.
“We went from partners to friends because I had to help her out,” said Nydia. “The more I helped her out, the more I became to know her more.”
Even just observing from a distance you can see Nydia giving her friend water, holding her hand and making sure she’s not alone. Mackenzie’s aide, Betty McKinnon, says Nydia was that way from the start.
“She looked at her and I said she can’t talk, but I said she wants to be part of your group, she wants to play with you. I said so if you can help her learn how to play she would like that a lot, and she said ‘OK’. I have not seen anything like it, but I am thoroughly convinced if you take this population, if you integrate with regular education students, they’ll blossom.”
A spokesperson for the district told NJTV News that it is currently working to include more students with special education needs into general education classrooms. The district says that’s because research does show that when you do that, it allows special needs students to achieve their fullest potential. And, you don’t have to look far for evidence of that, just take Nydia and Mackenzie.