Photos and story by Joyce Coronel
Players stood in a huddle on the field at Seton Catholic Prep during a flag football game on a warm spring afternoon. Nearby, a soccer game was in full swing and two teenagers in wheelchairs pushed themselves along the track.
Enter Sarah Thompson, a senior at Seton Catholic Prep, who organized the West Chandler school’s first-ever field day for special athletes. Founder of the Seton Buddies club, Sarah has a heart for those with special needs. One of her younger sisters, Mia, 14, has Down syndrome.
Rich Thompson, the girls’ father, said Sarah is quite protective of Mia.
“Sarah has always been very close to her,” Thompson said. “She’s a huge advocate for her. She sticks up for her—she’s always been that way.”
Seton doesn’t have any students with Down syndrome or intellectual disabilities, but through Sarah’s club, has partnered with area public schools that do. All year long, members of the Seton Buddies Club have attended games at nearby Chandler High School to cheer on special needs athletes.
The field day was the culmination of a weeklong effort at Seton to raise awareness about different types of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and learning disabilities. Special-needs athletes from several area schools were invited to participate in the field day.
Brittany Doude of Special Olympics was on hand to lend support as well as the organization corn hole game. Unified sports, in which typical athletes play alongside special-needs athletes, is one way to promote inclusion, she said.
“I think we’ve taken that step above in Arizona with youth leadership—with people like Sarah,” Doude said. “This is incredible,” she said as music blared from loudspeakers and students kicked a soccer ball nearby.
Thompson said he was proud of Sarah’s efforts to raise awareness about the challenges faced by special-needs students. “It’s been hard for me today to hold back emotion because I am so incredibly proud. I had no idea until I got here that it was this big,” Thompson said.
Through Special Olympics, Sarah has become friends with Jeremy McMullin, a 19-year-old Dobson High School student who has Down syndrome. Jeremy is a member of his school’s swim team and, according to his physical therapist, Crystal Conyers, is a huge sports fan.
“That’s one thing I’ve loved about working with him is that he’s always been an athletic and energetic kid,” Conyers said as Jeremy ran down the field with his teammates. During a break in the flag football game, Jeremy’s mother, Kym, offered a water bottle and spoke of the hope the field day at Seton inspired.
“This just makes my heart soar. Because as soon as these kids get comfortable, they’re going to take that out in the community to other people and it’s just going to spread,” Kym said.
A few minutes later, Sarah, dressed in her Seton plaid uniform skirt and white sweatshirt, approached carrying a large poster and a red basket filled with candy and other goodies.
“Jeremy, it would be SWEET if you would to go prom with me!” declared handwritten words on the sign bedecked with golden stars. A wide grin spread across Jeremy’s face as he realized what was transpiring. He accepted Sarah’s invitation and will attend the April 1 prom with her.
“He was one of my Special Olympic athletes for swim season. We got close and he’s been one of my good friends ever since,” Sarah said. “We hang out.”
Kym McMullin said Jeremy was adopted when he was 2 years old. “There are people out there that can see the gift that kids like him are.”
What does she think of Sarah inviting Jeremy to the prom?
“I think it’s pretty normal for him actually,” McMullin said, adding that Jeremy has asked girls to the prom himself before.
Amanda Bell, the faculty advisor to the Seton Buddies Club said Sarah was the one with all the initiative to hold the field day.
“All of the ideas have been hers,” Bell said. “She puts a lot of the burden of responsibility on her own shoulders. It says a lot about who she is as a person.”