Before attending a single class at Winthrop University, freshman Alexis Pattinson has already experienced “life-changing” bonds with students with special needs.
The Nation Ford High School graduate credits Unify Sports for her early success, which may translate into her college life as she pursues a degree in special education. Along with helping with their class work and community service, Pattinson is a “Unified partner” who assisted students who wanted to play sports – just like any other child.
“It’s definitely a great experience I’ve had,” she said. “It makes you realize that the struggles they go through, they can get through it.”
Project Unify is an initiative through the Special Olympics, designed for “fostering respect, dignity and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities.” Nation Ford is the only member of the Fort Mill School District that runs the program. By the time school begins this August, participants can choose to play cheerleading, basketball or soccer. The program also sponsors a state competition day at the end of the year, held either in Charleston or Greenville.
Pattinson recalled one of her students, Jim, who rarely wanted to play basketball during practice, but shone once the competition day in March arrived.
“He surprised us all with all the different skills he could do,” Pattinson said. “He made half of our baskets that game, and now he wants to do both basketball and soccer next year.”
Nation Ford’s Unify Sports program has grown at an impressive rate over almost three years, said school special education teacher Vicki Ball. While there are not many local teams to compete against, Ball said working at Nation Ford has provided the “ideal situation” to grow with students with intellectual disabilities. She received a grant in 2011 to begin a Unified Cheerleading team, and the success grew from there.
“I have to say, the kids at NAFO are so accepting,” she said.
“I’ve never seen anybody get picked on or made fun of. There’s so many kids who want to help and enjoy hanging out, so it makes things pretty easy when you have support like that.”
By the time the Unified soccer team makes it to the S.C. Special Olympic Fall Games, Pattinson will be a Winthrop Eagle, but she’ll be on the sidelines coaching in October. She’s hoping that Jim and his friends impress her once more.
“He’s a lot of fun to work with and I’m excited,” he said. “We really connected as buddies.”