On October 3, Picacho Middle School hosted the Unified Champion Schools Soccer Tournament against Sierra Middle School. Both teams played their hearts out and received ribbons after the game along with the tournament trophy, which was awarded to Picacho Middle School.

The Special Olympics Unified Schools program collaborates with schools throughout the nation to break down social barriers between students with and without disabilities. The program, formerly known as Project UNIFY, is a comprehensive model implemented in the US that combines Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement to create school and community climates of acceptance and inclusion.

The Project UNIFY initiative first began at Oñate HS in April 2013 with a unified softball team competition. Since then, the initiative has expanded to Las Cruces High School, Mayfield High School, Centennial High School, Zia Middle School, Mesa Middle School, Vista Middle School, Picacho Middle School and Valley View Elementary School.

“This is a phenomenal program that celebrates inclusiveness through teamwork, and sparks new friendships between students in our schools,” said Dr. Trujillo, Interim Superintendent for Las Cruces Public Schools. “We are happy to work alongside the New Mexico Special Olympics and very proud to see Project UNIFY expand in other schools across the district. The kids really enjoy being involved in a sporting event where the entire school is cheering them on from the stands while they encourage each other on the field.”

According to the Unified Schools website, Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. The program also creates teams based on similar age and ability, in order to make practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all.

“These two schools really exemplify what it means to choose to be inclusive,” said Rebecca Whitlock, Program Manager for Unified Champion Schools. “You can walk through Picacho or Sierra and see high fives happening, you can see real friendships and we are very excited to have them continue to grow their program, and we’re excited for LCPS to see where this program goes from here.”

Sierra Middle School and Picacho Middle School became Unified Champion Schools in 2018. Both schools completed 10 standards of excellence and are among only 221 schools in the country to be named a Banner School since the inception of the program in 2007.

Schools interested in participating in the Unified School program are required to have a school representative apply for a grant with Special Olympics New Mexico. As part of the grant application, the school will be required to propose a plan, which demonstrates how the school will target the three main components of inclusive sports, youth leadership & advocacy while promoting whole school engagement.

Unified Sports are now in more than 4,500 elementary, middle and high schools in the United States.  Seventy percent of Unified Champion Schools (Pre-K through Grade 12) are engaging in Unified Sports.

— Samantha Lewis, LCPS Public Relations Coordinator, 575-527-5946, slewis@lcps.net