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West Valley City Journal

Embracing equality: Hunter High’s inclusion activities receive national recognition

Feb 09, 2024 04:27PM ● By Julie Slama

Hunter High students made a splash during their unified production of “Finding Nemo, Jr.” (Photo courtesy of Lynsay Carter/Hunter High)

Senior Angelly Velasquez knows she is a much different person today than when she started at Hunter High.

Much of that change she credits to being involved in unified soccer, basketball and most recently, playing Dory in the school’s unified play, “Finding Nemo, Jr.” directed by drama teacher Kjersti Parkes.

“This school really supports us and offers us all these unified opportunities with the play, sports and a lot of classes,” Velasquez said. “Being involved in unified activities has helped me overcome my fears. I love unified, and I will forever be grateful.”

Hunter High was recognized as a Unified Banner School at a special assembly; Special Olympics awards high schools that have met and are sustaining 10 requirements, including whole school engagement.

For Velasquez, being in unified activities has given her more opportunities and more friends.

“I’m excited about being in the play and playing sports with my friends; I’ve met people that I never would have,” she said. “I’m grateful that I can do this my last year of high school.”

Last year was the first time Hunter students performed a unified play and Velasquez was cast as a silly girl in “Beauty and the Beast,” which she said was mostly an ensemble part. 

“This year, I’m Dory; I wanted to go out of my comfort zone and try something new. I have a lot of lines to work on and I’ve been working on that for a couple months. I’m excited to do this and make memories my last year in high school,” she said. “This year, it’s a little bit more nerve-wracking with a bigger part, but I’m not doing it alone. On stage, I have a lot of friends and my partner, Regan (Cooper) helps me memorize lines and helps me with what I’m supposed to be doing. She assists me if I’m walking or in the wheelchair and helps me build confidence. She’s good at listening to me and we talk about how to make it better. She’s just a wonderful person that I can trust.”

Cooper, a junior, said it was an easy decision to be part of the unified play again this year with Velasquez.

“I’ve always had a passion for theater, and I’ve always loved working with special needs kids; it’s what I want to do when I grow up,” she said. “Angelly and I were partners last year so it was fun to connect more with her this year. I’ve helped her with her diction, how to project and talk toward the auditorium. I’ve also helped her with singing as she has some solos. Our roles are like backup singers to give her voice depth and if she forgets her lines, I’m there to help with that and give her a cue. When we’re not on stage, we will run through some lines or hang out and talk about our lives.”

Cooper said it’s a positive atmosphere.

“This helps build unity in our school. When we did ‘Beauty and the Beast’ last year, everyone was friends with everyone in the school even if they weren’t in performing arts. It’s a positive experience and it just spread,” she said. “Angelly and I have become great friends through this. It’s a very lengthy process and it can be exhausting, but it’s also full of giggles and memories and little inside jokes that we’ve created throughout it. We have photos we can look back on and we’re in touch on social media. We created a strong bond.”

Hunter’s unified theater class came about when as a then freshman Whitney Rasmussen followed her older brother Michael to audition for a school play, “The Addams Family.”

“Any time he participates in anything, she just likes to tag along,” her mother, Christie, remembered. “She stood up and started singing. The director called, saying she didn’t know if Whitney could handle all the rehearsals and didn’t want to overwhelm her.”

For last year’s unified show, “Beauty and the Beast,” “Whitney volunteered herself to be Belle,” her mother said. 

Hunter High offers more than unified theater for students, said her mother. Her daughter is involved in cheerleading as well as unified sports.

“Hunter has unified theater, unified soccer, unified basketball, unified track, unified PE. They have a unified swim class and they’re adding more. It’s amazing. They make these kids really feel that they are Hunter Wolverines. It’s the coolest,” Christie Rasmussen said.

Teacher Ashley Ellis was the first to offer a unified class, PE. Recently, she took her athletes and partners to climb a rock wall.

“They had never done it before and everybody was nervous,” she said. “A partner was halfway up and got scared, then one of the unified students just started cheering. Afterward she told him she would have quit if it had not been for him. They are working together and realizing they have the same fears and hesitations. They also learn they can help one another and encourage each other.”

Hunter High plans to add unified health and unified cooking classes next year. 

“I’d love to have every class offered as a unified class. It’s really fun to have teachers of different subjects approach and ask what they can do to be a part of it. They see the benefit and they want to do that in their content areas,” Ellis said.

Resource teacher John Young, who said they received an outstanding recognition for inclusion from the governor last year, echoed Ellis.

“What separates us from other schools is not just me teaching and working with a small pool of kids every day, but the general ed(ucation) teachers who are joining and offering unified classes,” he said. “Those teachers have peer tutors and it’s the whole student body that gets an opportunity to become involved.”

 At the assembly, Special Olympics Utah representatives came to make the national banner announcement.

“It was a surprise to the student body, even to most of our unified kids,” Ellis said. “We had hung it up the day before with a piece of black paper over it. When it was introduced, a few of our athletes were able to pull down that black paper and unveil it to everybody. Our athletes and those in the play were excited because everyone was cheering for them and acknowledging what they do. The crowd was excited because they were part of the reason we were able to earn that banner. In this program, it’s everyone finding a place where they are accepted and they are contributing.” λ