According to Bend High School teacher Robert Tadjiki, students, teachers and administrators have been working for years to make the school a welcoming place for students with intellectual disabilities.

Now, they have a banner to show for it.

During an schoolwide assembly in the school gym Thursday morning, students and representatives from Special Olympics Oregon unveiled a banner honoring Bend High as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, one of four in Oregon to earn the designation in 2017. Kasey Keller, a retired goalkeeper who played for the U.S. men’s national soccer team and Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders and works as a soccer analyst for ESPN, was on hand for the event, and a video of Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard congratulating the school was played.

“It’s pretty special,” for the school, Tadjiki said after the assembly. “I want those with disabilities to really see that they are a part of our school and a part of our community. I’ve been doing this for a while — 17 years teaching at Bend High Schools, 10 years with Special Olympics, so it’s an honor.”

According to Special Olympics, approximately 5,000 high schools across the country field unified athletic teams, which are made up of students with and without intellectual disabilities (usually referred to as “athletes” and “partners,” respectively). Unified teams play against other schools in sports such as soccer, basketball and softball. Bend High started its unified sports program about a decade ago, and was one of the first schools in the state to do so. The Unified Lava Bears have enjoyed plenty of success in competition: Bend was one of four teams to earn a spot in the first Oregon School Activities Association-affiliated unified basketball tournament, which was held in conjunction with last year’s Class 4A state basketball tournament at Pacific University in Forest Grove. The unified soccer teamwon the state championship this fall and was honored Thursday alongside the Lava Bears boys water polo and volleyball teams, which also won titles last fall.

“It feels like one big family for me,” said Cody Boehme, a 17-year-old athlete on the state champion unified soccer team. “I’m glad I can be a part of it.”

Christian Schoen, a 17-year-old senior and unified athlete who enjoys shooting around in the gym while wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey, said the unified state basketball championship was one of his favorite high school memories so far.

“We got to go to state because we placed second in regionals, and oh my God, it was so much fun,” Schoen said after Thursday’s unveiling. “We met so many different teams, so many different people. Just seeing the partners and the athletes working together made me so happy.”

But Jean Hansen, vice president of school partnerships for Special Olympics Oregon, said fielding unified sports teams is just one of 10 factors that Special Olympics looked at when naming Unified Champion schools. Bend, Hansen said, also excelled in terms of inclusive youth leadership, demonstrating advocacy and respect for all students, and schoolwide engagement.

“At Special Olympics Oregon, we do what we call youth leadership conferences, so we go around the state and invite other schools to learn how we do these programs,” Hansen said after the presentation. “This year, Bend organized the (conference) here for all the Central Oregon schools, and their students also designed and taught the sessions.”

Hansen also mentioned the Respect Campaign, which encourages students to avoid using hurtful language when talking to or about people with intellectual disabilities, and the work by Bend High students to continue that campaign outside of school as factors that made Bend stand out. Forest Grove, West Linn and Sutherlin were the other three Oregon high schools to earn the Unified Champion school designation.

“I have to say Bend High is a lot more inclusive, partnering with kids with intellectual disabilities, helping them out and sitting with them and hanging out with them,” Schoen said.

“At Bend High, we work really hard as a school and as students to include everybody,” Kelsey Christensen, a senior and president of the school’s mentors club, added. “They feel more involved, and I think that’s a game changer. Everybody is somebody.”

During the assembly, Keller told the student body that the lessons they learn from the unified sports programs and the Respect Campaign are not like much of the factual material they learn and are tested on in high school.

“It’s not like a Spanish test you study all night for, and then forget 15 minutes after the test,” Keller said. “This stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Keller said that he became involved with Special Olympics after he retired in 2011 at the request of several acquaintances who were on the board of Special Olympics Washington.

“If you didn’t grow up with a friend or family member with special needs, you’re not quite sure, how do I interact? Do I interact? How does that work?” Keller said. “But when you start to get involved — you hear it from the able-bodied kids in unified sports, how fulfilling it is from them, understanding what it means to the Special Olympic athletes to have that involvement.”

Two unified partners, Patricia Chavira Grever and Davis Magenheimer, Bend High juniors, agreed that their experiences in the mentors club will stick with them after graduation.

“Our tournaments, you have to get up so early for them, and I dread getting up in the mornings. But it’s one thing that drives me to get up in the morning. I’m excited to get on the bus,” said Chavira Grever, who is also enrolled as a mentor, which means that instead of a traditional elective class, she is paired with a special needs student or two and helps them in whatever way they need during that class period.

“It’s definitely not something I thought I would be doing,” Magenheimer said. “A lot of kids, they don’t understand being a teacher. A lot of kids probably don’t want to be a teacher when they grow up. But I think this, in a way, has helped me see the good feelings you get from helping other people out, and why these teachers are here doing what they’re doing.”

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