Project UNIFY brings students together

Published 2:03 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012

Each child was chosen, tapped by a teacher to take part in a groundbreaking program at John Small Elementary School. It’s an educational program, an enrichment program, but its focus is on leadership and advocacy. Its focus is on educating the abled to learn how to support, appreciate and stand up for the disabled.

Twelve homeroom teachers were asked to pick one child from their class to be a part of Project UNIFY, a nationwide organization that encourages the interactivity of students in regular classrooms with students in exceptional children classes.

The teachers’ criteria: a student who didn’t need extra mediation time, one who could sit out enrichment classes, and most important, a student the teacher thought “would do well with exceptional children.”

Rose Syner, Callie Smith, Kevin Decker, and MacKenzie Chrismon (seated), play a game of “Duck-Duck-Goose” at John Small Elementary School. All four are participants in Project UNIFY, a club where regular students and the developmentally disabled work, and play, together. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

Now every Friday at 2 p.m., those 12 students meet up with their nine exceptional students and they get their game on.

On one side of the gym, a game of horse was being played. On the other side, a circle of students practiced passing a basketball to one another. When a ball was dropped, a fellow club member would fetch it. If one student lacked in strength, strength was supplied with the help of a friend.

“It’s fun to work with the kids,” said Will Rowe. “Some can be really fun and love to participate.”

His classmate, Henry Jennings, agreed. “(Project UNIFY) is good because we get to help them out. We got to help them train for Special Olympics,” Henry said. “They need our help, so we help them.”

Eight of the Project UNIFY regular class members attended the March 29 Special Olympics held at Washington High School as “buddies” to their exceptional counterparts, acting as escorts, making sure they arrived for their events and to pick up their winning ribbons.

The help and support offered by the Project UNIFY is a reflection of the support offered by the entire school.

“Last week the whole fifth grade made signs and banners,” said Amy Craft, John Small’s exceptional children teacher and Project UNIFY director. “They lined the hallways and cheered us on as we got on the bus.”

They were headed to the Special Olympics games.

Craft explained that the program is based on an anti-bullying philosophy, though the school doesn’t seem to have a preponderance of bullies, which she attributes to the fact that her kids are out there interacting with other kids. They are seen around school because they participate in school activities.

“I think they see that my children are just like them,” Craft said. “They want to do. They want to participate. They see that there are different people in the world, but they’re still people. They have the same wants, needs, and desires.”

Thirteen of Craft’s has a 19 years teaching exceptional children have been at John Small. She chose educating exceptional children because the subject touched close to home.

“I have family members who are exceptional and they went through school when there were no classes for them,” Craft explained.

Now, her class does the same thing that everyone else in school is doing: math, reading, science, “specials” like art and music, playing b-ball with all the other kids.

Project UNIFY has been so successful that parents of rising fifth graders have asked how their kids can get involved, but more impressive is that some rising fifth graders have asked Craft how to participate themselves.

Acceptance, open-mindedness, kindness, and compassion — John Small, and Chocowinity Primary School with its own Project UNIFY club, are leading the way in teaching all of the above.