LOS LUNAS — The Unified School Program for Special Olympics makes its Los Lunas Schools debut on Saturday and judging by the enthusiasm of the athletes it will be quite a show.

The activity at Valencia High School pairs students with special needs and a partner of general ability.

“They will work as a team; it’s going to be a great dynamic,” said Christa Johnson, inclusion support coach at Los Lunas Elementary School. “It’s a program that allows our athletes, children with special needs in our school system, to participate in sports with people of general ability. So, it’s unifying both of our groups.”

More than 100 Special Olympians from across the school district will take part in events — from 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, April 29, at VHS — such as corn hole, ring toss, softball throw and the soccer ball kick.

Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photos
Students with special needs and partners of general ability at Los Lunas Elementary School have been training for the Unified School Program coming up Saturday.

“I love to beat somebody in this stuff,” exclaimed Max Bennett, a LLE second-grade Special Olympics athlete. “I love to beat people, and I love to kick it hard into the net.”

What else is there to love at the event starting at 10 a.m. Saturday at Valencia High School? Food trucks, music, a parade, free pizza for the athletes and more.

“It’s going to be big,” someone said.

Early in April, the LLE students were limited to the lunch room for their Tuesday training session because of the windy weather, but the excitement was still palpable.

“It really gives them something to look forward to — to be excited about,” Johnson said. “They’re making new friendships that they wouldn’t have made if they didn’t have this program.”

Those friendships include partners who volunteer to help out.

“For me, I wanted to sign up right away because I just like helping kids,” explained sixth-grader Sophia Castillo. “I think it’s good for them. I think it helps them when they do sports — it feels good.”

The Unified School Program has been available in New Mexico for several years, but this will be the first time Los Lunas Schools has taken part.

“We’re looking for a way for our students with special needs to be able to participate in activities,” said Susan Chavez, chief student services officer for Los Lunas Schools. “We’re working toward a full inclusion district. That’s a few years down the road.”

As all the students gathered in a circle during a training break at Los Lunas Elementary, one athlete described the workouts as “very fun.” Another said, “The older kids are fun.” But when asked if they teach you anything, a boy shook his head, saying, “No,” he joked, drawing laughs from everyone.

Special Olympics Unified is personal to Johnson, and not just because she is an inclusion support coach. She has a 15-year-old son with Down syndrome.

“When I had my son, it opened my eyes to a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking,” an emotional Johnson shared. “It’s not only about kids with special needs but about kids in general. I think it’s important because I want to see him included. I want him to feel like he’s a part of his school.”

It’s a learning experience for everyone as well.

“It also teaches our kids without special needs how to be more tolerant and understanding, show empathy for those that aren’t like them. It’s so important,” Johnson said. “As a mom, oh my gosh, I’m so excited. As a teacher, as an inclusion support coach, I can’t wait.”

Chavez says early results of the program are noticeable.

“You can see it in their emotions,” she said, noting that special needs students are now sitting with general-ability students during lunch at one high school. “They’re able to be more a part of the whole school experience.”

Chavez believes on Saturday they’ll see “some great smiles on our kids’ faces, a lot of camaraderie between all our students —and a time for them to shine.”

Johnson ended by saying, “Yes, it’s been a long time coming.”

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.