It is senior “ditch” day at Denver South High School on the south side of Washington Park.  With only a handful of school days left, this officially unapproved day off for those about to graduate marks the down-shifting into summertime gear as high school life coasts to a stop.  Mother Nature sure cooperates and gives us a beautiful clear blue sky seventy degree day perfect for eighteen-year-olds to celebrate the success of completing four grueling years of high school with a full morning slate of sleeping in followed by a heavy afternoon dose of doing nothing.

No sleeping in for seniors Annie and Freddy, though.  Not today.  The captain of the cheerleading squad and starter on the varsity boy’s soccer team have an early morning class they just can’t miss.  It’s not because of a test they need to pass to graduate.  They don’t have a final presentation scheduled for this Friday in May.  In fact, ditching won’t affect their graduation status at all.  Ditching would, however, have a big impact on Annie and Freddie and their teammates on the Unified sports team.  They have soccer practice at 8:45am, and Jorge, Christian, Katlyn, Cortez, Alex, Claire, Dareus and the others just won’t accomplish their training goals for the day without them.  Annie and Freddy are among the leaders on the Unified sports team that features Denver South’s finest students with disabilities hand in hand with juniors and seniors called “partners” from the rest of the student population.

That last sentence was hard for me to write.  Probably a lot like you, I struggle and fumble my words when I try to describe the differences between “normal” kids and those with physical, mental and emotional challenges.  It makes me feel dirty to call non-disabled kids “normal” as though I am implying that those who face daily challenges with physical or cognitive function are therefore “abnormal.”  Thankfully, I have Annie to set me straight.  “Sure, I was nervous when I first joined the Unified sports team.  But then I learned these kids like music and they like to laugh, just like me.”  Before she can complete that thought, Jorge, who has been smiling ear to ear since the Unified training session started, sneaks up behind Annie and startles her.  She laughs and tells me he owed her one from when she snuck up and scared him earlier in the week.  “You got me good, Jorge!”  They both laugh.  Huh…turns out Annie is right.  Laughing and messing around does put all high schoolers on common ground, disabled or not.

Unified sports is no laughing matter, however, to Katlyn.  Standing a full foot shorter than any of the rest of her teammates, Big K, as they call her, is here to compete hard and win.  When we are introduced, I assume the nickname is a reference to her diminutive stature.  I quickly learn she is called Big K because of the size of her personality and her heart.  She is a sophomore at South, but her athletic accomplishments are already very impressive.  She plays fullback and halfback on the Unified football team in the fall.  She recaps the big game on All City Field, the Denver Public Schools stadium adjacent to South High, against rival Unified sports powerhouse John F. Kennedy High School.  She also tells me about her buzzer beater at the Pepsi Center in a Unified game played before a Nuggets game during basketball season.  This school year marks the first year for Unified floor hockey, and Big K recalls with pride that she is, “One bad mamma jamma of a goalie!”  Then her tone changes and her face turns serious as she describes her win against JFK’s fastest runner in the 100 meter dash during track and field.  “I was a little behind her, and I could hear her panting.  I was just jogging at the time.  When I heard her panting I knew it was time to go, so I passed her and I won!”  That is what she likes best about Unified, she tells me.  “No one can tell you what you can do and what you can’t do!”

Big K has plenty of time to talk to me as she is taking it easy this day due to an ankle injury.  She twisted it during her work helping with recycling at the school.  “Injured on the job,” she tells me with a head shake and a sigh.  The Unified team will miss her until that ankle mends and Big K is back to full speed.

Coach Katie Ryan leads the Unified team.  She is also the very accomplished coach of the volleyball team at South.  Based on the powerhouse program she has painstakingly built with the girl’s volleyball players, there is no doubt that her efforts with Unified will yield great results.  I try to ask Coach Katie about the specific disabilities of the athletes, but she is uninterested in the conversation.  Unified is not about limiting factors, it is about working together to achieve athletic goals.  She does share with pride that both the high functioning and severely disabled special education groups at South participate in Unified.  She has the help of about five para-professional teachers who work one-on-one with the students who need the most help.  One of the more strong-willed students named Claire wears a belt for the purpose of helping to guide her through her day.  Coach Katie tries in vain to lead her out to the soccer field.  Claire is having none of it until her favorite partner student athlete holds her belt and the two walk happily out to the pitch.

It is that interaction between the athletes who need a little help and the partners who are there to provide it that makes this program so special for Coach Katie.  Unified is not about exercise for those with handicaps.  Maybe it started out that way, but it has evolved to be about relationships and working toward a common goal and love.  Partner athlete Eliana manages the highly ranked girl’s soccer team at South.  She spent a huge chunk of her day on Thursday, the day of the girl’s soccer league championship game and biggest day of the season for the South Rebels, decorating the activity bus for prom for her Unified teammates.  The partner students make sure the girls have prom dresses and that all the juniors and seniors are ready for the big dance Saturday night.  I ask Coach Katie if Unified practice is the best part of her day.  She looks at me like it’s a ridiculous questions – like I haven’t been paying attention – and answers emphatically and with a huge smile, “Absolutely!”

Back on the pitch, Alex is working on sending it long.  He wears a helmet all the time and walks slowly and deliberately to the ball he is using for practice and puts his laces into it again.  He doesn’t talk to me, but he grins a little when I send it back to him saving him the long walk between kicks.  His play seems a little solitary, but he very clearly feels a part of something just being on the field with the other athletes.  I am confident that he would not be working so diligently on his game, kick after kick, if the other athletes were not out here with him.

Dareus is a graduating senior and he tells me he has made many friends in high school through Unified.  He tells me all about math class, game design class, history and writing class.  He says he is not very good at writing stories, but he sure likes writing.  After a ten minute conversation with Dareus, something tells me he is selling himself a little short regarding his story writing abilities.  He loves school and is obviously nervous about life after South.  There is one clear difference between Dareus and most of the students, and it has nothing to do with any disability.  Most kids love the break from school provided by Saturday and Sunday.  Not Dareus.  He tells me, “I wish they would stop the weekends.  Most of my friends are here!”

The friendships continue beyond the sports arenas and spill caringly into the halls of this century old building.  Unified partner athletes include the quarterback on the football team, the cheer captain and many other leaders in the school’s general population.  When they walk the halls between classes laughing it up with their Unified friends, it launches these kids facing challenges instantly to the top of the cruel teenage social hierarchy.  They are elevated from forgotten and misunderstood to “besties” with the school’s most popular students.  They all describe it as a great feeling – the Unified athletes and partners alike.

Cortez is the three point bomber on the Unified basketball team.  He has only been at South since January, but his participation in Unified makes him feel as comfortable and belonging as all of the rest of his teammates.  I don’t know many kids who can move to a new school in the second semester of their senior year and fit in like Cortez.  His girlfriend, Isabel, is out of school today attending a family baby shower.  He wishes she was here so he could introduce me.  He tells me of the 18/21 program he will attend after graduation.  DPS provides transition services for young adults who need a little extra help until they reach the age of 21.  Cortez is excited about life after high school, but he is clearly a little nervous to leave the safety of the friendships Unified provides.  No time to worry about that now.  Cortez has prom preparations to which he needs to attend.  He has some partying to do and some charisma to share as Saturday night will be a night to remember!

Practice is over and the team ends with a Unified huddle and loud rebel cheer.  It is time to go to the next class for the special education students.  They walk slowly back into the building clearly disappointed that the best part of the day has come to an end.  Annie and Freddy aren’t going to class.  Now that they have not let down their teammates, they have a senior ditch day to get on with.  As Freddy leaves, Coach Katie asks him what he has planned for the rest of the day.  He is off to Party City to get crowns for his Unified teammates for the royal court ceremony the partners have planned for the prom.  Coach Katie asks him if he needs some money.  “Sure,” Freddie replies casually.  He will certainly let the expense be covered by Unified program funds, but he is buying the crowns even if that offer had not been made.  The joy the crowns will bring some of his dearest friends is worth way more than the few bucks they will costs.  I know Freddy as a hard-nosed, physical, shoulder banging, hard-charging soccer player.  When I heard Freddy, who has been with the program since its inception at South three semesters ago, describe Unified as, “a life-changing experience,” I knew it was something I had to learn more about.  I sure am glad I did.  Now I understand what Freddy is talking about.

Freddy, Annie and the other junior and senior partners sign-up for Unified because they think they might have an impact on the lives of their peers with challenges.  Make no mistake about it.  They have an impact on the disabled students at South that is measured in smiles, effort, self-confidence and love.  What Annie and Freddy and the others might not have counted on is the impact their Unified teammates would have on them that is measured in understanding, encouragement, laughs and love.  While the other seniors sleep in and miss math or science or history, Annie and Freddy are on the pitch playing soccer with their music-playing laughter-loving friends.  I don’t blame Annie and Freddy one bit.  I wouldn’t ditch the chance to have that kind of Friday morning either!

Denver South High Photos