The bond of friendship between Alex Hunt and Jacob Ingraham was clear as the pair stood side-by-side in the Eaglecrest High School gym on Nov. 16.
Hunt, a senior, spoke of his looming graduation and listed the parts of his life at Eaglecrest that he'd miss most. Ingraham, a junior, figured at the top of that list, as did the school's Unified sports program, which includes basketball, flag football, track and cheerleading. Like other similar initiatives across the district, the state and the country, Eaglecrest's Unified initiative pairs athletes with special needs with their typically developing peers.
Hunt has taken full advantage of the menu of Unified activities during his time at Eaglecrest, and Ingraham has played a big role in his victories on and off the field and the court. Ingraham has served as Hunt's teammate and advocate, helping him out on the basketball court, encouraging him at track meets and offering guidance as he's taken on roles as a flag football player and cheerleader.
"He's a great guy," Hunt said, looking to Ingraham with an unmistakable look of admiration in his eyes. "I've made a lot of friends. It's fun – it really is. I'm going to miss everything about the Unified program here."
Hunt and Ingraham aren't the only ones who've benefitted from Eaglecrest's Unified Program. The initiative has helped encourage inclusion and cooperation for hundreds of students at the school over the past several years, and that impact hasn't gone unnoticed. On Nov. 16, officials from Special Olympics Colorado visited Eaglecrest to formally designate the building as a National Banner Unified Champion School. The honor recognizes schools that have met a strict set of standards related to inclusion and involvement.
This year, 1,100 schools applied for the honor, and only 182 received the rare honor nationally. In Colorado, only six schools were named National Banner Unified Champion Schools – Eaglecrest was one of three schools in the Cherry Creek School District to receive the title, joining Grandview High School and Arrowhead Elementary.
"These schools met 10 different requirements related to sports aspects of their Unified programs," said Chaka Sutton, senior vice president of the Special Olympics Colorado's Unified Champion Schools Program. Sutton added that the rubric included standards tied to youth engagement, whole school engagement and a specific number of sports offered. "The program is in its 11th year, and it came about to build inclusive schools using sports as a vehicle."
Specifically, the Champion Schools Program was designed to broaden the impact and effect of the Special Olympics' core mission to all students at any given school. The Unified programs at Eaglecrest perfectly meet this mission, offering a bridge between students of different backgrounds, abilities and interests, Sutton said.
"We realized we were missing the boat. We wanted to empower our youth to include everyone in the building," he said, adding that the purpose of the programs has been to create an "Inclusion Revolution."
That goal has been met at Eaglecrest, according to ILC teacher Kelley Zimmerman, who has played a significant role in building the school's menu of available Unified sports and programs.
"It has totally changed the culture of our school," Zimmerman said. "Receiving this designation is a huge honor. It's great to show the whole state how much work we've put in to our Unified program."
Zimmerman joined Hunt, Ingraham and Sutton to formally accept the designation during an Eaglecrest assembly that also saw the awarding of academic and extra-curricular honors to dozens of students. It was no mistake that the Unified program received plaudits during the same ceremony that praised the school's scholars and athletes. In a school that has created a strong culture of inclusion and celebration, all of these accomplishments found equal room and equal importance.
"I love helping out the Unified athletes in any way that I can," Ingraham said. "They're like family to me ... They're such great people."