Washington High Hosts First Unified Physical Education Field Day in Mid-Illini

WASHINGTON – Mitch Coughlon is the reigning Star Boys Journal Male Football Player of the Year.

But on Wednesday, the Washington high school multi-sport athlete stood on Babcook Field, dressed in his football jersey, holding a hoop as high school students with disabilities tossed or kicked footballs through it.

“It’s all about participation,” Coughlon said. “I love sports, I love being on teams and competing. This day is also about giving these kids that chance, and I love seeing it.

“Their happiness is our joy.”

Charlie Smith, a junior from Washington Community High School, dances his heart out during a dance party on Babcook Field to end Mid-Illini's Unified PE Field Day Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 in Washington.  Approximately 200 special needs students and their assistants from across the Mid-Illini conference played games, held a balloon relay race, and danced on the field for the inaugural event.

Coughlon was among 30 Washington student-athletes from multiple sports — football, baseball, soccer, volleyball and more — who were appointed by their college coaches to manage play stations set up on Babcook Field for 200 students in unified physical education and their “peer buddies” from the Mid-Illini conference.

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Unified PE programs are established in Washington, Limestone (one of the first and best), Canton, Beijing, East Peoria, Morton, Metamora and Dunlap.

But Wednesday was an inaugural event, marking the first time that all of those schools (except East Peoria, which had a prior commitment) came together to host a field day at one site.

“So far so good,” said event director Kara Kamienski, who teaches the Unified PE class in Washington. “It’s supposed to be a day of inclusive fun. In the fall, Mid-Illini has a coaches conference and we sat down together and talked about what we could do to really increase the opportunities for these students, find more opportunities for them to participate within the IM instead of individual schools coming out of it.

“That’s how this conference-wide event was born. We also plan to do more, like a kickball tournament in the spring.

“I don’t think we could have done this without our student leaders. They’re incredibly passionate about opportunity and inclusion and they did the planning, put together the materials for the games, all of that.”

Metamora freshman Angel Vasquez laughs while balancing a rubber chicken during the Rubber Chicken Relay race Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 during Mid-Illini Unified PE Field Day on Babcook Field in Washington.

Behind the curtain

Six Washington seniors were the driving force behind Wednesday’s inaugural event. They included Cameron Donald (track), Jori Dowling (volleyball), Sophie Kamienski (cheerleading), Taryn Chave (band), Jacob Ray (military programs), and Kolten Harn (Gay-Straight Alliance club management).

“Making these kids feel included in what we all do is the greatest feeling,” Donald said. “We pulled out a spreadsheet and figured out what we were going to need, how everything was to be timed and set up.

“When you do things like that, you also think about your own path. I want to go to university, maybe majoring in film or computer science, I’m not sure yet.

“But I want to be someone.”

The same goes for his fellow students, who shared a passion for connecting with students with disabilities on Wednesday.

“I want to go into special education,” said Sophie Kamienski. “Being involved in this unified physical education program has been great. The relationships we form with these kids are so rewarding.”

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Dowling, a senior on the varsity volleyball team, moved with her family from Bradley-Bourbonnais to Washington and has participated in programs like this most of her life.

“I’ve worked with students with disabilities since third grade,” she said. “I love being with these kids. These are important relationships we are building, the kids will remember them forever and so will we.

“Just seeing how happy they are today is everything.”

“I hope I will remember it forever”

They circled the field, alternating stations with Frisbee throws, soccer balls and mini-goals, cornhole boards, volleyball matches with beach balls, and more.

“I think it’s more of a chance to get out there and do something,” said Beijing freshman Lilly Williams, who was one of 39 disabled children from Beijing on the court Wednesday. “I think that’s all pretty cool.”

Washington Unified PE student Kaleb Bonds loves all things Chicago Bears, and his baseball pick is the Peoria Chiefs. But on Wednesday, he said his favorite on-field event was throwing footballs into a hoop held by Panthers soccer star and Coughlon soccer team kicker.

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“They made the world a better place for us today,” Bonds said. “I hope everyone can try this.”

They took a break for lunch, team relay races and a feel-good dance party. Then the first unified Mid-Illini conference field day games were in the books.

“It was fun, I liked tossing the footballs into the net,” said Levi Hinds, a senior from Canton’s Unified PE program. “I have memory problems, so I don’t always remember things for very long.

“But I hope I will remember it forever.”

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star’s sports columnist and covers men’s basketball for Bradley, the Rivermen and the Chiefs. He writes the sports column Cleve In The Eve for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.

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