The inaugural Palos Verdes-Peninsula Unified Sports Track Meet, involving students with special needs, went off without a hitch Thursday, March 28, at Peninsula High School — even as federal officials debate Special Olympics funding.

“I wish (Betsy DeVos) was here to see this,” Patrick Daley, Peninsula boys soccer coach and event coordinator, said, referring to the U.S. education secretary, who has proposed cutting funding for Special Olumpics. On Thursday, President Donald Trump said he overrode her.

“A lot of what happened (Thursday),” Daley said, “was because of funding from the Special Olympics Southern California.”

More than 80 student-athletes, including nearly 60 students with special needs, participated in the three track events, which included the 50 and 100-meter dash, and the 4×100 meter relay.

After hearing in the fall that North Torrance would not continue hosting the unified sports event — a term for activities involving students with special needs and the rest of the general population — Daley teamed up with two special education teachers, Melissa Decasas and Betsy Fujinaga, to find a way to bring the event to Peninsula.

“When I found out North wasn’t going to do it, I told Melissa and Betsy that we needed to host it here,” Daley said. “We wanted to organize it at Peninsula, so we talked with (Principal Brett Kuykendall) to get the ball rolling. The rest is history.”

Fujinaga, Peninsula’s special education skills for independence teacher, was excited to give Peninsula’s students with special needs a chance to enjoy something different.

“I love every opportunity that we can give to our students to get the full high school experience,” Fujinaga said. “To have the crowd cheering for them, running with their peers, using the school’s facilities, having the band and the cheerleaders gives them the opportunity to experience high school like they should.”

Fujinaga got the process started a few years ago, reaching out to the Special Olympics organization so Peninsula could become a Unified Champions School.

Without the entire school’s support, Fujinaga said, she felt an event like Thursday would not be possible.

“We want to have total school involvement, from inclusive leadership and unified sports opportunities,” Fujinaga said. “We felt that when we made our proposal (for this year), the track meet would encompass all our goals.”

Thursday’s event capped the kind of year Peninsula sought to have — as its yearly theme was “Choose to Include and Show Respect”.

“We’ve been leading up to (Thursday) showing videos to our students and staff,” said Fujinaga, who is in her 17th year at Peninsula. “We want this generation to be the generation that chooses to include and show respect.”

But getting ready for Thursday was not a simple task, Daley said.

“We’ve been planning this for about five months, and we put in countless hours,” Daley said. “We’ve had weekly meetings for the last three months, and we’ve sent countless emails and text messages.”

When it was time for Thursday’s event, all of the stress Daley had beforehand washed away.

“The kids’ smiles are the main reason I wanted to bring this event to Peninsula,” Daley said. “I went as a guest last year (at North), and the smiles I saw made me want to do this. It makes all the planing, all the stress worth while.”

Decasas, who has been Peninsula’s adaptive physical education teacher for 7 years, saw her students enjoying the event to the fullest.

“Having the support from the whole school, the leadership classes and our principal’s support from the beginning was really exciting for us,” Decasas said. “(Kuykendall) was one of the first to suggest we host the event.”

Kuykendall , in his second year as Peninsula’s principal and 20th with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, saw Thursday as the school’s chance to set a precedent for others.

“Our school and staff did something I hope all schools can do,” Kuykendall said. “Betsy, Melissa and Patrick did a phenomenal job and it was great to see all the stands filled with staff and students putting their differences aside to cheer each other on.”

Daley saw Thursday as the perfect opportunity to give back to the Peninsula community.

“I love this community so much,” Daley said. “I grew up going to church down the street, and I just wanted to give back.”

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