Different hallways, but partners for life

It’s a hallway like any other at Columbus North High School, only most of the “regular” students don’t go there.

“We are secluded,” said North special education teacher Corey Londeree of his students and those who teach them. “This is where we are all the time.”

Many of the high schools around the state have a hallway much like the one at North, where classes are designed for students with learning disabilities or special needs.

Although those programs are contained within the high schools, they have remained distinct separate entities.

So the Unified Track idea was born.

The idea, as promoted by the Indiana High School Athletic Association and developed by Special Olympics, was to provide a sports experience that would ultimately allow high school students with and without intellectual disabilities to interact and represent their high school.

On Saturday, Columbus North and Columbus East take their Unified track and field teams to the Edgewood Regional with the hope of qualifying for the Indiana Track and Field State Tournament on June 6. The Unified competition begins at 1 p.m. before the girls competition.

Cole Whitchurch, who competes in the 100 meters, the 4×100 relay and the long jump for the Bull Dogs, said he hopes to make it to the state meet by helping North finish either first or second at the regional.

“If he pushes us enough, we will win whatever we go to,” Whitchurch said as he looked over at Londeree, who coaches the team.

Whitchurch will compete alongside his “partner” Ty Bentham, a North junior who plays on the Bull Dogs’ vaunted soccer team. Londeree has 14 members of his Unified team, both boys and girls, and has a student volunteer partner for almost every one.

It is a partnership that wouldn’t have existed without the Unified track program.

“We had never met,” Whitchurch said of Bentham. “Ty is a partner now. I like talking to him.”

Whitchurch gets to mingle with the other partners as well.

“The way I see it, we all get to collaborate,” Whitchurch said as he received a little help from Londeree in completing the word collaborate.

That collaboration makes Londeree smile.

“Our motto is unity, being together,” he said of the Unified Track program. “It has been powerful, life-changing, inspiring. I only see it growing.”

The program started around the state with 13 programs last year and now has 57, which includes Columbus North and Columbus East in their first seasons.

“It is a great program,” said Cara Bentham, who is Ty’s mom and a special education instructor at North. “I actually have most of the (Unified Track) students in my life skills program. Every Tuesday and Thursday, it is all about track practice. They are excited and they have a feeling that they belong. Their first track meet, you could see them coming out of their shells.”

Whitchurch loves wearing his Bull Dogs Unified track shirt.

“I wanted to see what it was about,” he said of joining the team. “I’ve had no problems yet even though this is my first year of track. I am best at the 100.

“The hardest? That’s the long jump. You have to do it just right. But I take it very seriously.”

Ty Bentham takes his involvement in the program seriously.

“Corey asked me for help,” he said. “It’s been awesome to see that kids like that can compete and be happy.”

The team aspect is something that Ty Bentham always has enjoyed, and now the special education students at North can share that feeling.

“A team is kind of like another family,” Ty Bentham said. “You get close to the guys. I think (the Unified athletes) like it, too. We have become great friends and we all help each other and push each other.”

The special education students were pretty much anonymous at North to the other students according to Ty Bentham, who said the only interaction was the special education department’s coffee cart that sold coffee and muffins.

Although the special education department students are having more interaction with the regular student body, Ty Bentham said there still is a ways to go.

Some of his fellow students think the Unified track program is cool, others make the same tired comments about special education students that Ty Bentham said he “brushes off.”

He does know that there is more work to do and he plans to make Unified track and helping all the students collaborate on a more regular basis his senior project.

“I like bringing the Bull Dogs name to something else,” he said. “The program makes me feel happy. I love it.”

Cara Bentham said the Unified program has benefited her son as well.

“I see a great growth in him,” she said. “He’s taken to it.”

He’s taken to it together with Whitchurch.

“It has been fun watching him compete,” Ty Bentham said. “He is a great athlete. He is fast and really good at jumping. And he tries to help other people jump farther, too.”

Bentham and Whitchurch will compete together on Saturday and they hope to qualify for the state meet. If they don’t, that’s OK. Whitchurch has something more important on his mind.

“Hopefully we will do this again next year,” he said.

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WHAT: Unified track regional meet

WHERE: Edgewood High School

TIME: 1 p.m.

DID YOU KNOW?: Columbus North and Columbus East are fielding Unified track teams, made up of students with intellectual disabilities along with volunteers from the student body who partner with them, for the first time this season