In an effort to help youngsters with special needs become comfortable with athletic endeavors, Washington Special Olympics brought its Young Athletes program to Edmonds’ Maplewood Cooperative K-8 School Thursday afternoon. The event delighted Norma Gunnersen’s class of nine kindergarten-through-third-grade students with autism and also reinforced the special bond that Gunnersen’s class has been developing this year with third-graders from Nanette Peppin’s general education class, who also participated.
The two classes had already been partnering together during the school year, with Peppin’s third graders serving as helpers and mentors for Gunnersen’s students. “It’s good for them to be engaged with all different kinds of people,” said Peppin, who noted that her students not only assist in the autism classroom but they also volunteer at nearby Prestige Rehabilitation Center, where they help senior citizens with crafts projects. “It develops a lot of self-esteem for the kids when they can be helpful.”
Peppin’s students also participated in the Special Olympics Young Athletes program when it came to Maplewood Thursday. According to Scott Friberg, Special Manager of Northwest Sports & Programs for Special Olympics Washington, the program — which has been offered throughout the Edmonds School District — familiarized younger special-needs students with the activities that Special Olympics offers. (Students have to be 8 years old to participate in Special Olympics.)
During the hour-long program led by the energetic Friberg, students from both classes rotated through six stations — staffed by Maplewood middle school student volunteers — which were aimed at developing balance, hand-eye coordination and hitting skills. Peppin’s third-graders often served as guides for Gunnersen’s students, helping them navigate everything from balance beams to soccer drills.
They also witnessed a milestone, when one of the autism class students — walking hand-in-hand with two classmates from Peppin’s class — was able to jump for the first time during a floor exercise. “Those are the moments that make your day,” Friberg said.
At the end of the event, all students received Special Olympics gold medals and posed for a group photo.