Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Education designated Volunteer a Unified Champion School in recognition of its Unified Special Olympics program.
The program pairs special needs students with other student peers who compete together in special track and field events.
VHS special education teacher and Special Olympics coordinator Christy Thacker told the Times News last week that Volunteer is the only such school in East Tennessee.
“As a Unified Champion School, we got a grant through the Department of Education and Special Olympics that helps fund uniforms, covers travel expenses, and helps grow Volunteer’s Unified program.
“The Unified athletes are peer tutors. They are the regular students pairing up with the special ed students, and they run together. They are not members of the track team. These are just students and peers from the school who are unified and do a lot with our students.”
On Monday, Volunteer hosted its annual Special Olympics Track and Field competition for Hawkins and Sullivan counties, featuring more than 100 athletes, including for the first time this year athletes ages 2-7.
Those youngsters win ribbons instead of medals because they’re still learning their events.
Although many of the participants are students, some are adult athletes with disabilities who represented the Chip Hale Center in Rogersville and Frontier Health agencies in Sullivan county.
Among the events were the javelin; long jump; softball throw; running races of 50, 100 and 200 meters, as well as Unified events including the 100 meter run and the 400 meter relay.
Track and field gold medal winners among the 8-and-older competitors included: Alex Hilton, Joycob Doty, Ronnie Dalton, William Kiser, Zachariah Paciorek, Nolan Kenner, Jonathan Collins (who won three golds), Troy Wilkey, Summer Parkhill, Scottie Smith, Michael Laster, Angelica Keeling, Austin Russell, Robert Miller, Michael Hoffman, Spencer Boggs, Thomas Hosein, Brandon Berry, and Bodie Parks.
Thacker noted, however, that winning gold medals isn’t the primary objective for competitors. Mostly it’s supposed to be fun, but there’s also a learning component.
“More important than winning is that we foster inclusion and that our athletes learn the skills necessary to compete and to learn to be part of a team,” Thacker said.
However, just because winning isn’t the primary goal doesn’t mean it’s not a goal.
So far, 2019 has been an eventful year for Volunteer Special Olympics, whose Unified basketball team won the state championship in March in Nashville.
Volunteer’s second team at the state tournament placed second overall in the lower bracket.
May 17-19 the Volunteer Special Olympics team is sending 19 athletes to the Tennessee Summer Games in Nashville, including seven in track and field and 12 in bocce ball.