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North Fort Myers High becomes ‘Unified Champion’ school

By Staff | Oct 3, 2018

North Fort Myers High School is about to embark an athletic program that will bring together students with and without special needs to compete against other schools in numerous sports.

Lee County Parks & Recreation has announced a partnership with the Lee County School District to implement school-based Special Olympics programs.

These programs begin with pre-kindergarten and continue through high school with the goal being to promote social inclusion and acceptance through shared sport training and competition experiences for individuals with and without disabilities.

Also included will be high school Unified Sports. Unified Sports provide opportunities for all students to compete in sports activities alongside one another.

“The Special Olympics have been around since the 1960s. What hasn’t come to Lee County until this year is they also have Unified Sports,” said Don Payne, Lee County Parks & Recreation Special Olympics coordinator. “It’s been around since the 1980s and Collier County been doing it and it’s exciting that Lee County is doing it.”

The athletes who have special needs and partners participate together on a team that competes against other high schools.

Special Olympics Florida offers four Unified Sports that include basketball, flag football, soccer and track.

Training begins next month with games in November.

North Fort Myers and Cypress Lake high schools will be the first schools to be named Unified Champion Schools, which will compete against teams statewide. In February they will have a chance to win a Unified Basketball State Championship, which Immokalee won last year.

North became involved when Payne contacted Joe Bowen, athletic director at North, who in turn passed it on to Beth Beller, ESE teacher.

“Don and I both have the same backgrounds. He thought it would be great for us to have something like this at the school and we thought it would be a great opportunity for us at the school,” Bowen said. “Beth Beller works with Special Olympics so I passed the baton to her.”

Schools can become a Unified Champion School through whole school involvement. These schools not only have Unified Sports teams, but also demonstrate inclusive youth leadership to promote acceptance and inclusion. For example, they create activities such as campaigns to eliminate derogatory terms used for individuals with disabilities.

At Cape Coral High School, the JROTC program, led by Lt. Col. Richard Livingston, has taken on Unified Sports as a service project, as well as implement student-inclusive campaigns.

Every Lee County high school will have the opportunity for their athletes and partners to form a team and compete against other high schools. Payne said basketball will be offered in at least 12 schools at the recreational level, many during the school day.

Payne hopes those school also become Unified Champion Schools.

Payne, a former ESE teacher and athletic director from the Lee County School District, will support implementation of school-based Special Olympics programs.

“At this time, Lee County will start with Unified Basketball in the fall/winter and Unified Track in the winter/ spring with the hopes to offer the other two sports in the future,” said Payne, who hopes the teams will be able to play several games against other schools.

For more information about the Special Olympics programs, contact Payne at 533-7518.