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Kellis Unified Soccer selected for USA Special Olympic Games

Peoria Times - 2/8/2018

Raymond S. Kellis High School has been recognized for its Unified sports programs, and now it is set to send yet another team to the USA Special Olympic Games.

This year, the Kellis Unified soccer team was selected to represent Arizona and will be flying to Seattle, Wash. in June.

The team participated in the area Special Olympic Games Dec. 6 at Peoria Pioneer Park and came home with the gold to earn the trip to Seattle.

Kellis Unified Soccer team athletes and their team partners could not be more ecstatic about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as a team partner, Cassidy Gatrost, described it in her email notification to members of Peoria City Council, where she serves as a youth council liaison.

On a recent visit to the campus, athletes and partners were able to express their excitement and just talk about why they participate in the Unified program.

Partners are students enrolled in general education classes, who sign up for Unified sports. They are ambassadors and bring people together to teach life skills.

This is Allyson Herrera's first year on the team. She plays defense.

"I was the only person in my family to play soccer," she said.

She has a 23-year-old brother with Down syndrome who plays in a day program called One Step.

Allyson said Unified "is a good program to get kids to be aware of other people's abilities and disabilities, to make sure we all have the same opportunities."

Alex Demeter said he chose to be with the team to meet everyone and "just have a good time, bond with everyone."

His older sister was part of the Unified program and introduced Alex to her partner at a football game.

Jacob Van Mierlo has been part of the program for three years.

Jacob said, "It's hard to put into words. It opens your mind, your vision of the world and how unique everyone is. It's true - I found my personality and built me into the person I am today."

Cassidy, a sophomore, is in her first year as a partner in the Unified soccer program. She's following in the footsteps of her cousin, Coryn Salazar, a Kellis graduate, who was in the program her senior year of high school.

As to what makes her a good partner, Cassidy said, "I grew up with a lot of family members who had special needs and I helped them out. This program has helped me even more."

She still helps out her family members.

Team coach Michael Wakeford and his assistant coach, Chris Ensslin, do the pairings for the athletes and partners. All of the partners agreed that it all works out in the end, even when it may not appear that way at the beginning of the year.

And now, as Allyson said, "We're going places."

And from now until June, the team is competing with other states to promote fitness. They wear Move bands, like Fit Bits, to see who can train, get the most steps, burn the most calories.

Wakeford has been at Kellis 12 years, and his father was a Special Olympics coach as well.

"He was my role model since getting out of college," Wakeford said.

He remembers the Kellis team's first trip to USA Special Olympics. They traveled to Nebraska in 2010.

He said, "This offers students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete for their state, sleep in a hotel, be independent, develop social skills, and be able to work on those skills."

He said they will go everywhere together as a group.

They will join the 140-member delegation from Special Olympics Arizona, which also has a basketball and swimming team headed to the Northwest.

Ensslin is in his eighth year at Kellis. The soccer team was his first assignment.

"It's challenging, but rewarding, keeps you on your toes," Ensslin said. "A lot of our kids, because of their disabilities, put a lot of stress on their families.

"There's not a lot of support out there. Our kids, the experience they get, they wouldn't be able to, because of the socio-economic situations of their family."

He said some of the kids will never fly on a plane; the trip to Seattle will be their first time.

"When you get to see that learning, it's definitely very gratifying," Ensslin said.

Although he and Wakeford don't teach the general education kids, Ensslin said when they come into the classroom for the Unified program and get involved, carry the torch forward, "that's very rewarding."

The athletes are especially happy about being on the Unified team.

Owen Waybill said he enjoys being on the team, that's it, that's what's special, working as a team.

Kevin Moehr said, "We have to move and we keep on going and we train to be more competitive."

Khasaari Jackson was soft-spoken and shy, saying he likes being on the team "to meet the neighbors (teammates)."

Andrew Sedillo said, "We get to have fun and hang out together, and I like soccer."

Nicole Verdugo was one of the most talkative athletes.

Nicole said, "I get to hang out with my friends and if I need to be tough on a guy, I will."

She has more confidence now since she joined the team, she said.

"Seattle - it's colder and might be fun," Nicole said. "I've never been there."

You can help this team make that trip of a lifetime by taking advantage of the Arizona Charitable Tax Credit Program. Through this Arizona tax incentive, individuals can donate up to $400 and married couples filing jointly up to $800. Every cent of the donation is reimbursed to the donor in the form of a tax credit.

In addition, the law allows donors to make contributions up to April 15, which can be claimed on the previous year's 2017 tax return.

Special Olympics Arizona has partnered with Executive Council Charities (EC-70) as their Charitable Tax Credit umbrella organization. Donors may designate in the" Memo" line the delegation, program, event or USA Games athlete-team to be credited with the funds. Make a gift by visiting

Five other Kellis students are participating with the City of Peoria Special Olympics USA volleyball team, which is also going to Seattle.


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