When a group of students at Glacial Drumlin School in Cottage Grove attended an eighth-grade girls basketball game recently, it was more than a chance to cheer for the home team.
The group attended the game as part of an organization called Project Unify, which seeks to bring together students in special education with those who are not. This particular activity, which has been done in the past, is called Fans in the Stands.
On the day of the after-school basketball game at Glacial Drumlin, fifth-grader Rylee Ganshert, who has special needs, got to choose what color of bandana everyone would wear. He picked purple. As he sat at the game surrounded by members of the organization holding posters they made ahead of time, Rylee said he liked being able to stay at school two hours longer than normal.
His sister, seventh-grader Breleigh Ganshert, said she thought the organization was cool and liked seeing students helping other students.
“I think (Rylee) likes it,” said Breleigh, who also went to the game. “He likes that he can be a part of it and be kind of like a star.”
Sara Mooney started Project Unify at Glacial Drumlin after being part of the organization started at Columbus High School by another staff member. Mooney, a special education teacher for seventh-graders, started it at that grade level last school year. This year it was opened up to grades 5 through 8, and the number of participants has jumped from about 30 to more than 130.
Mooney also applied for Glacial Drumlin to become a Unified Champion School, which means that Project Unify members also are part of the effort to team up Special Olympics athletes with other students who play together in a particular sport. For example, in October the organization went to Waukesha to take part in a soccer tournament. They also went bowling in December.
They also have been fundraising and will participate in Saturday’s Madison Polar Plunge, which raises funds for Special Olympics athletes.
Other Project Unify activities include “lunch bunch,” where the students eat together, and helping with grade-wide assemblies. The students also team up in regular education classes as partners in group activities.
“I’m trying to be nicer and more inclusive,” sixth-grader Natalia Ciobanu said. “It feels like I’m making a difference.”
Sixth-grader Alyssa Otto said she likes to hang out with a friend who has autism, and Project Unify gives her more opportunities to do that.
“I wanted to just give kids the opportunity to work with kids who may not be able to advocate for themselves,” Mooney said. “I wanted to work toward kindness, respect and inclusion.”
Seventh-grade teacher Moe Scheck and school counselor Emily McKee also help run the program.
Mooney said the organization’s goals tie in with the Monona Grove School District’s efforts toward inclusion.
“This helps to facilitate that,” she said. “It just eases the transition into the classroom.”
Mooney said she saw Project Unify as an opportunity to bring students together in a way that wasn’t otherwise happening. A positive school culture is valuable to all students, she said.
“Kids who participate in this program say ‘hi’ to each other in the hallways, say ‘hi’ to the kids who are otherwise on their own, and that might not have happened as much in years past,” Mooney said.
Fifth-grader Preston Jatczak said he wanted to help people who may not ask for it and this gives him that opportunity.
“I want them to have a good time so they can be happy and remember what a fun day we had,” Preston said.
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