Cameron Barnes has always known that she’s wanted to be an advocate, “a voice for the voiceless,” as she puts it. But it wasn’t until last year, when she started Project UNIFY at Hazen High School, that this senior fully realized how important advocacy was for her.
Project UNIFY is an umbrella program under the Special Olympics and is, according to the website, “an education- and sports-based strategy… that increases athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities, while creating communities of acceptance for all.”
The program allows for students to come together and engage in sports activities.
“It’s an attempt to bridge the gap between special education and general education students in a way that doesn’t feel like community service,” said Barnes. “You’re not doing anybody any favorites by participating. You’re learning and participating in a new sport that you don’t know anything about. So it evens out the playing field.”
According to Barnes, the sort of integration the project seeks is almost unheard of in the district but is essential as “the whole community will be better because of it.”
“[This program] helps general education kids know that these kids are involved in the same community that we are and that we need to involve them in the same things as well,” said Barnes. “It also helps special education kids know that they can go out and make friends in a school where there aren’t a whole lot of activities to get involved in.”
Barnes heard about the program at a leadership retreat and was compelled to bring it to Hazen. She worked tirelessly last year to get the program off the ground.
With the blessings of the administration and parents alike, she was able to kick-start the program with an introductory practice event. It was a litmus test of sorts, a way of seeing if students were interested in the project and its goals.
“I was surprised by how many showed up and how many people were actually interested and followed up,” she said.
The event allowed students to try out different sports, including basketball, volleyball, football and soccer, to see what they were most interested to play.
“What’s difficult with the wide variety of needs is that someone may want to do something but they can’t because either it’s not safe or something else is easier,” Barnes said.
And while the event was successful, Barnes hit some speed bumps this school year when she lost her adviser. Since the program is student-led, Barnes was unable to move forward without an adviser’s support and supervision. But she’s spent the entire year to make sure this wasn’t the final chapter for the program.
“Asking any student to get this set up is a big task,” she said. “I tried to do it and I couldn’t do it myself. It is a big bummer because I hoped to be further along with the program than I am right now. But I’m hopeful because I’m passing it along to someone who thinks it is a meaningful cause.”
But in the short time Barnes has been able to work on the program and make relationships with students of the special needs class; she has gained new understanding and perspective.
“These kids are really cool and very talented, and you won’t know that until you hang out with them,” she said.
“I didn’t think about a lot these issues before. I’ve never though about if, at assemblies, they want to be included with their graduating class and not their own class. I thought this could be something bigger. There’s a lot more we could be doing to bring more inclusion.”
Barnes credits the program for helping her realize her passion.
“I learned that advocating for people is what I was meant to do,” she said. “In an indirect way, I was advocating for [differently abled students].
I was advocating for their integration into the school’s community. Because of that, I realized that helping people is what I want to do. Helping people has always been my goal, and I was able to put that into words when I did Project UNIFY.”
Barnes plans to attend Gonzaga University to study psychology and international studies, then later pursue law.