KAPAA — For the past nine years, Project Unify coach Tamarine Carvalho and her students at Kapaa and Kauai High schools have worked hard to nip the R-word in the bud.
When new Kapaa High School members of Project Unify, an education and sports program affiliated with Special Olympics, meet for the first time each year, Carvalho tells students without intellectual disabilities one thing only.
“The only thing I ever teach them is that the correct term is intellectual disabilities — they’re not mentally retarded,” said Carvalho, a special education teacher at Kapaa High School. “They’re just people who have intellectual disabilities. After that, everything that they learn is on their own.”
And much of it, she said, neither occurs in a classroom nor through long lectures.
Instead, a lot of knowledge is gleaned naturally through the wide range sports that all club members — those with and without intellectual disabilities — participate in throughout the year without much instruction, if any.
These sports, Carvalho said, include soccer, track, bocce ball and bowling.
“Ultimately, what we’d like to do is to break stereotypes, especially in high school because it can be so clique,” said Keoni Leota, Kapaa High School educational assistant and club adviser. “Ever since we made the club, it has really opened the eyes for a lot of the kids in terms of being in a safe, comfortable environment. When you’re in a class with kids with disabilities, there’s nothing different.”
And slowly but surely, the use of the R-word, as Carvalho prefers to call it, has disappeared from conversations among students.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“When I first came here, I was floored when people would walk by and I would hear things like, ‘Oh, that’s the mentally retarded class,’” Carvalho said. “I was pissed, but I told myself, ‘You can’t get mad about that because people are ignorant,’ and that’s the whole point of the club: to change those views.”
Now, she said, students who are a part of Project Unify are spreading the word and slowly changing past perceptions of intellectual disabilities on campus.
It is a club that is also flourishing at Kauai High School, under the direction of Erin Dunn, and Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, under the direction of Amanda Fretto.
The Garden Island caught up with Leota and Carvalho on Tuesday to find out how Project Unify has changed over the years, since it’s start at Kauai High School about nine years ago, and what kind of impact it has had.
The Garden Island: What is one key thing that you want people to know about Project Unify?
Tamarine Carvalho: Project Unify is about young people having the power to change entire school communities. People tend to focus on disabilities when viewing special needs students and athletes. Project Unify is a movement where youth leaders of the school, with or without disabilities, come together to change attitudes and misconceptions about those who have an intellectual disability. Project Unify is more than just teaching acceptance and respect; it is about opening the eyes of our school community, so that disabilities are no longer the focus. Instead, we strive to focus on abilities, capabilities and possibilities in each individual.
Keoni Leota: Just because students may have a disability doesn’t mean that they can’t be a leader. When we come together in bowling, track and other sports, our kids who have disabilities are also becoming leaders because they’re taking on leadership roles.
TGI: Can you please explain how Project Unify started on Kauai and how it has grown?
Carvalho: I originally started doing this nine years ago with Ms. Rose Doi at Kauai High, and for the first two years, I was sort of under her direction. At that time, we were really trying to find people to join. In the beginning, the coaches and adults were the unified partners, and we just said to ourselves, ‘This isn’t fun. We need to get more people involved.’ It wasn’t open in the schools, so we just brought unified kids in from church and kids we knew. We kind of did things backwards — usually you should start something in the school and then bring it out into the community, but we started things out and brought it in. When Ms. Doi retired, she handed me the torch and I just said, ‘This is crazy. Let’s just make a club in the school (Kauai High),’ so that’s what I did.’ For the first couple of years, I was actually running the Project Unify clubs at Kauai High and Kapaa High. Ms. (Erin) Dunn now runs the club at Kauai High — she and I did it together and now she has officially made it a club at Kauai High. During the last five years, it has taken off. We were so desperate because we didn’t have enough unified partners but now I have to turn kids away. During the first week of school this year, I already had a waiting list of kids because I could only have so many participants.
TGI: How does Project Unify facilitate in breaking down some of the misconceptions that students have about their peers with intellectual disabilities?
Carvalho: Every year, I always lose about half of my kids when they graduate, so during the first quarter, about half of the kids in the club already have the knowledge, but a lot of the new ones come in with misconceptions. They only know that they’ve heard such great things and want to be a part of it. So, during the first two meetings you can usually tell who are the unified kids who have been doing this — they sit down, they hug the kids, they sit next to them and talk story — and then you see the new ones who come in and they kind of segregate themselves. But during the first semester of school, once they start hanging out with them, it all comes together — that’s all it takes. I never taught them how to do it. We never sat down and had a club meeting where I would say, ‘You say intellectual disabilities.’ After our first practice on Wednesday, I’m going to call a meeting next week with just our unified players and so many of them will tell me things like, ‘I can’t believe so and so did this.’ They’re shocked — everything that they thought about our kids in terms of what they can’t do or the way they would behave weren’t true. They realize our kids are functioning like normal citizens and then they realize that they don’t know what they’re so scared about. It’s one of those things that I don’t teach them — that’s what I love about the club. It naturally happens through the sports teams. The best bonding that takes place is when they go to Oahu because they’re going to be around each other all the time. The pictures and videos that I have from that time are so endearing — it’s so natural, it’s not forced. When we went in May, I didn’t even set up a time for them to go to sleep, so they were playing hide and go seek in the University of Hawaii at Manoa dorms till like midnight — I had 24 of them running around. Just something as simple as that goes a long way.
TGI: What is the most rewarding part about Project Unify or about what you have done with the club at Kapaa High School?
Carvalho: I think the most rewarding part about the club is when things happen that have nothing to do with your influence. My kids, for the first two years, had lunch in my classroom — they stayed in here for recess and played in here. But over the last two years, I think the most rewarding thing is that the kids don’t stay in here anymore — they are out there, people know them, people say, ‘Hi,’ to them, and people hang out with them. I think that’s what it’s about. I wanted this school to be educated, but you can only do so much. What I think I really wanted was for my kids to feel like they’re a part of the high school experience. At our school assemblies, each grade level goes up and challenges people to go up and do something, but our kids were never asked. It felt like we were a completely separate group because we were never planned into it, but over the last two years, there is no separation anymore. They have been included in every, single thing — they’ve been asked to participate in everything and they’ve joined other clubs. In the past, things weren’t even presented to me — people wouldn’t tell me this would be happening or give my kids the opportunity. Now, opportunities are just given to them — they’re a part of the school system now. What got me this year was coming to school early and seeing the athletes hang out with their unified peers.