Avery Estes couldn’t hold her emotions in, and neither could her mom.
After receiving her silver medal for cornhole at the 2023 Special Olympics Summer Games in Stillwater, tears streamed down the 15-year-old’s cheeks, as well as Amanda’s.
Smiles stretched from ear to ear.
“She was just so proud of herself,” said Amanda Estes, thinking back to that special moment and the journey that led to changes her family had searched for since Avery started school.
“She would not take that thing off for at least a week,” she joked. “As a mom, for her to understand that accomplishment… I can’t describe how wonderful it is. We never thought we would be here. It’s something I’ll cherish for a lifetime.”
Avery, who was diagnosed with Autism with developmental delays and Pandas when she was 5 years old, is one of 71 athletes currently competing for Mustang Special Olympics as part of Special Olympics Oklahoma.
MHS is a Unified Champion School which promotes Unified Sports, including soccer, bowling, volleyball, basketball, bocce, and more.
As part of Unified Sports, people with and without intellectual disabilities participate on the same teams. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
Mustang head coach Cherie Miller says the concept has been a “game changer.”
Avery Estes (right) poses with partner Braighlee Franklin (left) after being awarded silver medals for cornhole at the 2023 Special Olympics Summer Games in Stillwater last May. Estes is one of 71 athletes who participate in Mustang’s Special Olympics Program. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Special Olympics)
Unified Champion schools help support Special Olympics Oklahoma by promoting positive school climate, developing physical fitness, building character, preventing bullying, enhancing student engagement, and promoting and building student leadership skills.
It incorporates MHS athletes – or ‘partners’ – and brings them together to participate with and help guide Special Olympics athletes through their events.
In Unified Soccer for example, six athletes with special needs are paired with four partners. The main objective: get the ball to the stars of the show and let them have fun. At the end, teams take home medals and are recognized for their accomplishments.
The Broncos captured one gold medal with two silvers at this year’s Unified Soccer State Competition. They also featured one fourth-place squad.
“It has made Special Olympics become much more inclusive and has helped more people get involved,” Miller said. “Once we saw it unfold, we knew it would change our team and program. And it has, massively.”
For Avery, her teammates, and many others, Special Olympics isn’t about winning or losing.
It’s about participation, friendship, having fun, learning, growing, and much more. Most importantly, it’s about inclusion.
“These are people that don’t always fit into normal sports,” Amanda said. “They have been made fun of and criticized because people just don’t understand.
“Special Olympics has changed all of that for not just us, but for many, many others as well.”
Mustang Special Olympics athletes Robert Barrett, Timothy Gibson, Brendan Westfahl, Jonathon Julch, and Kaci Richardson pose with partners Levi Johnson, Grace Holocomb, Tawnie Roehm, and Amy Drabenstot with their second-place trophy and silver medals at the 2023 Unified Soccer Competition. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Special Olympics)
Until joining Special Olympics, Avery struggled with feeling isolated and shied away from team-like activities. Amanda has shared a sense of loneliness with her daughter, saying at times it has all felt like a death sentence. Avery’s brother, Cooper, is 19 years old and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
“For me, autism is one of the loneliest things to have,” Amanda said. “A lot of people don’t want to be your friend because they don’t understand your kids. We struggled with a lot.
“But when we walked into her first-ever Special Olympics event, it was the complete opposite. Avery was met with high-fives and knuckles… and it’s just one big happy family. We were absolutely embraced by everybody.”
Mustang Special Olympics athlete Maddison Eastman asks for advice from Bronco football player and Special Olympics partner Tymere Holingsworth (Sr.) during the Route 66 Area Bowling Competition at Bronco Bowl in Mustang. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Special Olympics)
Both Avery and Amanda have made new friends along their journey. Avery has “come out of her shell” and wants to do to as many events as possible says Amanda.
“I love it. It has been such a blessing to see how much this has helped her grow.”
Emily Silva is one of 55 partners participating in Special Olympics. She is the Unified Club President and has been a tremendous part of the program according to Miller.
“She is amazing.”
Silva says she couldn’t imagine life without Special Olympics. She has helped participate in not just sports, but other activities as well, including a fashion show last year.
“It really means everything to me,” Silva said. “I love making sure these kids feel loved and happy. It’s hard to explain the joy you get from seeing the smiles on their faces. Mentoring them has been one of the highlights of my life.”
Mustang Special Olympics athletes Brooklyn Gomez, Marlie Lynch, Jase Nance, Adrian Garcia, and Ricky Torrez pose for a photo with partners Emma Torrez, Klaire Dilon, Liam Garcia, Victoria Flores, and Jonathon Garcia with their first-place trophy and gold medals from the 2023 Unified Soccer Competition. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Special Olympics)
Like the other 54 partners within the program, Silva has taken away many life lessons in helping the program’s athletes grow and develop.
“Just always being there for people,” she said. “I try to focus on that. Helping them know that other people want to be involved in what they’re doing and helping them make relationships and genuine connections is what it’s all about.”
Mustang Special Olympics is also helped by MHS’ Students Assisting Students program where kids are able to work with handicapped students in a classroom setting during school.
Seeing the bond being built between those with special needs and those without tops the list for reasons Miller enjoys her work.
“It makes my heart so happy,” she said.
“Just to sit back and watch them interact is amazing. To see them creating a bond and actually being friends. As an adult, to see these kids and soon-to-be adults get these life lessons is so cool to watch.”
For the Estes family, they just wish they had known about Special Olympics sooner.
Avery is now in her second year with the program and the growth she has experienced mirrors many of the athletes who have long participated.
“Her confidence has grown and her personality,” said Amanda. “Before, she wasn’t able to accept losing and was angry during games. But now, it’s ‘you win some and lose some’ and she just enjoys being out there.
“It’s so amazing to see that happen from where she was prior to joining. People don’t realize how healing this is for the kids.”
Mustang Special Olympics athletes pose with their ribbons from the 2023 Route 66 Area Bowling Competition at Bronco Bowl. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Special Olympics)
To say Mustang’s Special Olympics squads stay busy is an understatement.
In September, the program won first place in the Non-Profit and Civic Groups division for the Mustang Western Days Parade Float Decorating Contest. ‘Bustin’ with Pride, Support Unified!’ was the winning theme.
The Broncos participated in the 2023 OSSAA/SOOK Unified Volleyball Competition in October, taking home third place while just missing out on state. They also took part in the Route 66 Area Special Olympics Bowling Competition at Bronco Bowl in Mustang.
Not to mention the program’s 2023 Fall Festival with 82 athletes, parents, and siblings joining with 24 Unified partners for activities such as pumpkin painting, cake walks, costume constests, dancing, and more.
Just recently, the program participated in the Route 66 Basketball Competition and in January will take part in the Winter State Games.
For Miller and the entire Mustang Special Olympics coaching staff including assistant Ann Golemon, they love daily interaction and working with the program’s athletes. She says they are continuously uplifted by the kids’ spirit and joy for life.
“I feel like as a whole it makes you and them better people,” she said. “They are just like you and me and want to be seen like anybody else. That is the life lesson we get out of this.”
Peyton Franklin poses with her medal at the 2023 Special Olympics Route 66 Area Bowling Competition at Bronco Bowl in Mustang. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Special Olympics)
Amanda Estes and her family agree. As well as all parents of the athletes who help inspire everyone they come in contact with.
“We are trying to educate people and get public support,” Amanda said. “People have to realize they are human; they have just been dealt a different hand. And you really don’t know what you’re missing out on by not being around them. Once you understand what it’s about, it’s not a death sentence.
“A lot of people can learn a lot from these kids. My daughter has found a place… We have found a place.”