The way Glenwood Elementary third-grader Bristol Duncan talks about fellow Glenwood student Hailey Belen, you would think they had known each other for years. However, Duncan just moved to Virginia in December and it wasn’t long before she hit it off with Belen.
“Her laugh is…she really laughs at anything and her personality is like the best I’ve ever seen,” said Duncan. “Her smile is always the best. She’s just like a sweetheart, the most kind girl I’ve ever met.”
The feeling must be mutual because Belen always greets Duncan with a hug. Always.
“I always ask her, ‘Who’s you best friend?’” said Duncan, “and she points and says, ‘You!’”
The new best friends are among almost 300 students from 14 elementary schools spending time together to train for the school division’s second annual Little Feet Meet scheduled for March 27. An additional 118 students from Tallwood High, the host school, also will be involved as event volunteers.
Held in partnership with Special Olympics Virginia, the event provides an opportunity for young students with developmental disabilities to participate in developmentally-appropriate races, throwing events and jumping events with assistance from a general education peer. The goal is to further promote inclusion and acceptance in school communities while encouraging physical fitness.
Preparing student athletes in schools is done under the supervision of school staff and adaptive physical education teachers, who also attend the Little Feet Meet.
“We hope to make sure the peer buddy and the athlete become familiar and comfortable with each other, especially for some of the students who are nonverbal,” said Meghan Mathews, an intellectual disability teacher at Glenwood. “That way the peer buddy understands it’s OK if you don’t get any feedback from them or if they’re not responding to you. It’s also so the students, both the athlete and the peer buddy, are aware of what they will be asked to do out there. Where do you need to throw the ball? How are we going to run? What does the jumping activity look like?”
Mathews, who attended the meet last year with students, said all involved had “a great time.”
“They liked the idea of participating in something and being the winners and being celebrated as the champions. For someone to focus purely on them and the ribbons were very motivating,” she said.
Across the city at Alanton Elementary, fifth-grader Destiny Cochran was motivating Cambria Cummings in her practice for the ball toss event.
Cochran shared that she had to write an essay to explain why she wanted to serve as a peer buddy for a student athlete.
“I love joining things that involve helping and working with others. I feel it is my job to help when I can,” she wrote.
After weeks of practicing alongside Cummings, Cochran shared what she has liked best. “I like that Cambria likes to try and she tries as hard as she can. I know she does.”
Jean Glendon, an intellectual disability teacher at Alanton, said that her students have fun with their peer buddies and the buddies benefit as well.
“It gives the peer buddy an understanding that all people are different and that all people can do things and have different abilities. It also gives them some information about career and volunteer opportunities. Special Olympics has different events all year,” Glendon said.
Mathews echoed the sentiment shared by Glendon, reinforcing the Little Feet Meet’s main goal of promoting respect, friendship, acceptance, unity and inclusion.
“Nobody really looks at these students as having a disability,” said Mathews. “It’s just that they are athletes and they are out there to participate. It’s nice to have that acknowledged.”