Skyler Howe stood tall and proud after walking the hallways of his high school.
For a moment, the teen savored sudden celebrity, sharing the spotlight with his cherished friends.
“It was awesome, actually,” said Howe, who joined his basketball teammates to soak up the cheers of supporting students lining the hallways that connect the Auburn High School Commons to Bob Jones Gymnasium. “This feels great.
“I like that we all come together and play as a team,” Howe said of his experience on the court. “We have a great time playing together.”
Howe and the Auburn Unified Special Olympics cagers were blown away by a Walk of Champions, a let’s-pack-the-gymnasium rally for the team’s game that night against Kentridge. Teachers emptied their sixth period classrooms Tuesday afternoon, and students responded, forming a tunnel of adoring fans.
Basketball is one of the seasonal activities the group takes up, joining bowling, robotics and soccer teams during the school year. Unified Special Olympics sports – available to area special education students ages 14 to 21 – is an inclusive program that pairs individuals with intellectual disabilities (athletes) with individuals without intellectual disabilities (partners) on teams for training and competition.
Players primarily are from Auburn High, including those who have graduated and belong to the Auburn School District’s Transition Assistance Program, (TAP). It provides continuing education for post-high school students with significant disabilities to foster independence and improve their quality of life as adults.
The program is a rewarding experience for coaches, partners and players – an opportunity to learn and play as a unit. The Walk of Champions was one way to acknowledge the program’s efforts. Katie Henry, Auburn High’s athletics director, worked with program leaders to make the Walk possible. They hope it becomes an annual event.
“It means a lot. We’ve never done this before.” said Stefanie Freeman, a special ed para-educator and Unified Special Olympics coach.
“It means a lot because I don’t think everyone understands that these kids are playing full-court basketball… and they’re being recognized as actual athletes.”
Added Teiha Ahluwalia, a special ed para-educator and coach for Team Auburn: “Just like all the other athletes around the school, they want to be recognized just the same.”
Laura Melendez, a player, appreciated the support.
“It was surprising. I didn’t (expect it),” she said. “It’s cool, and I like it a lot.”
On the court, the team of 16 strong has flourished.
On Tuesday, Auburn prevailed over Kentridge 46-42 in front of a solid crowd, Mayor Nancy Backus, Auburn School District Superintendent Alan Spicciati and an alumni band.
Just last Saturday at Edmonds, the team captured three wins to seize the district gold for the first time in the program’s four-year history. The team plays several league games against foes in the Seattle area.
“We are really proud of how much they’ve improved throughout the season,” Freeman said. “It’s really amazing.”