DEWITT — The thundering applause and ear-piercing cheers coming from the Central DeWitt Intermediate School student body was almost enough to bring Megan Jackson to tears.
It was an assembly — packed with plenty of pep — celebrating the inclusion of all students, regardless of their intellectual abilities.
Jackson, a special education teacher, was deeply moved by the students’ excitement and encouraging reactions as Special Olympics athletes performed a dance, together with members of the district’s Unified Champion team, and played 3-on-3 basketball with teachers.
Assemblies were held at each of the Central DeWitt buildings to help spread the word about “Respect Week.”
Respect Week, which was March 4-8, is an initiative put forth by Special Olympics Iowa to bring together students with and without intellectual disabilities through education, sports and youth leadership.
As Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, Central DeWitt Community Schools commemorated the week by encouraging students to “believe in a world of millions of abilities … not disabilities.”
“[The students] were probably more passionate about it than I was,” Jackson said with a smile. “Every day, they would send me an email or text saying, ‘Let’s do this’ or ‘Let’s do that.’ They were really great.”
As designated Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, Central DeWitt has a Unified Champion team made up of students from the middle and high schools.
One of those members is high school junior Carmen Anderson-Perez.
Anderson-Perez has been a Unified Champion team member for two years, and said the person who inspired her to become involved was her brother, Mateo.
“My brother is a [Special Olympics] athlete,” she explained. “I went to one of their basketball games to cheer him and the other athletes on. I was in awe of how Special Olympics works, and how they all have such a bond.”
Anderson-Perez hopes Respect Week helps other students in the district realize everyone is different in their own way.
“We can all show we are there for them, and accept who they are,” she related. “We can start a whole movement that will last for years to come.”
For fellow team member Lexi Vetter, a sophomore, the best part of the week was the assemblies.
She loved watching people reacting to the athletes, and watching how happy the athletes were to hear their cheers and applause.
Vetter believes Respect Week is about teaching her peers that simply because a person has a disability, it doesn’t make him or her any different than anyone else and that they have the same needs and feelings as anyone else.
“The thing I enjoy about [being a Unified Champion team member], is that you can be yourself and have fun with people you’re comfortable with,” she shared. “Just because they have a disability and may be a little different than us physically, doesn’t mean they aren’t sweet and don’t have big hearts, because they all do.”
Jackson said she believes Respect Week at Central DeWitt gave more attention to Special Olympics as a whole.
She also appreciates how supportive school administrators and staff are of such activities, and making their success — and that of the student athletes’ — possible.
“Each day of the week, we announced an ‘Athlete of the Day’ over the loud speaker,” Jackson said. “You could hear the cheers of the others students and teachers through the hallways. Respect Week is about getting students to realize [Special Olympics athletes] are still people. But I think this community has always been good about that.”
Unified Champion team members Maggie Froeschle and Maddie Vinson said they love every minute of being part of the team.
They agree, it’s never too soon to learn the importance of inclusion.
“I want people to understand these kids are beyond their disabilities,” Froeschle, a seventh-grader, said. “They should be included like any other student. And, they deserve the same respect as everyone else. Beyond that, I just really want people to understand, accept and include.”
In front of the crowd of staff and students at the intermediate school’s assembly, 17-year-old Vinson summed up the philosophy behind Respect Week in one sentence.
“We believe that the world would be better if all people were valued, respected, embraced and included.”
The Observer photos by Kate Howes
(GirlsDancing2) Central Community High School junior Maddie Vinson dances with Special Olympics athlete and Central DeWitt Intermediate fifth-grader Marlee Michaelsen during an assembly at the intermediate building promoting Respect Week.
(GirlsHugging) Showing the love: Central DeWitt student Savanah Meyne gets a big hug from Special Olympics athlete Olivia Carr, after the two performed a dance in honor of Respect Week. Students district-wide learned the importance of including and accepting everyone, whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.
(GoSabersSign) Sign of respect: Central DeWitt students, including Tristan Rheingans, made signs in support of Special Olympics athletes, who will be competing at the state competition this weekend.