For the last couple of months, San Benito High senior Mariana Magana’s favorite time during school was her lunch period. A couple of months ago, Magana, the Haybalers’ starting goalkeeper, started playing soccer with several of the school’s Life Skills/special education students, developing relationships in the process.
In early November, Magana took a break during a lunch period to survey the scene with Claire Grissom, who is San Benito High’s assistant principal.
“I started talking with her and she said it would be really cool if there was a team (for the Life Skills students),” Magana said. “Then she asked me, ‘Why don’t you start one?’ That stuck in my head all day, and from there I started doing research on schools that has sports teams with kids with disabilities.”
The ball got rolling from there, and two months later Magana and many others were overjoyed when approximately 15 general education students were mixed in with 18 to 20 special education students for the first-ever Gifted Soccer Game on Feb. 8.
“It went really well,” said Magana, the Gifted Soccer organizer. “I didn’t expect that many people to show up, and I was really proud and happy. I was really excited to see all of the students’ facial expressions, and it really got to me. A couple of them hugged me afterward and I cried a little. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”
Even though Magana has had some impressive games in goal for the Balers—she didn’t play last season but was the starting co-goalkeeper as a sophomore—the satisfaction pales in comparison to spearheading an event that gives Life Skills students an opportunity to engage in their own competitive game.
“Organizing this was to show inclusion and unify special education and general education students so they can create friendships and get more people involved,” Magana said.
Magana also recruited a half-dozen of her Baler teammates along with a couple of players from the boys team to participate in the event. Magana, who wrote a two-page proposal to her teachers to get the project started, was driven to make this happen.
Alex Mendoza, Maya Peterson and Shantay Tamez are standouts on the girls soccer team, and in interviews with Magana they expressed a wide range of positive emotions. Junior Ramon Delgado, who plays on the boys team, also relayed some comments to Magana. In short, they all knew they were a part of something special.
“I have never been a part of something more amazing, the joy that soccer brings to these young men and young women warms my heart,” Delgado said to Magana. “The smiles on each and everyone of their faces while kicking the ball is unforgettable. Gifted might just be the greatest start to more inclusion at this school and a wake-up call to the community of how important it is to include.”
Tamez told Magana: “For myself to be able to enjoy and share my love for soccer with other students who are a part of the special ed program at our school, I felt honored. … Soccer, like many other sports is something that brings a lot of people together, and I’m glad to be a part of something that’s so inspiring to others around where anyone can be engaged and be a part of like Mariana says, ‘#Choose to include.’”
“They give off such a positive feeling and seeing how much they enjoyed themselves convinced me to continue to help out with the program next year as well,” Mendoza told Magana.
“I hope that this inspires other to incorporate special ed students into different sports and activities, and I am so glad that I was able to be involved in such an amazing opportunity,” Peterson said to Magana.
Magana is using her love for her fellow students to make a difference. Since her sophomore year, Magana has served as a peer teacher, interacting with special education students. However, Magana’s love for special-needs kids began as a child, when she met twins Chloe and Vanessa Chavarria, whom she has known since they were 7 years old.
For Magana, soccer isn’t just a sport she plays to better herself. It’s also a platform she uses to make sure special education students have the same opportunities that are afforded general education students. There are seven more Gifted soccer games on the schedule, with the next game scheduled for March 1.
“Hopefully by the next school year, we’ll find a way to involve other sports, too,” Magana said.
Magana knows she has made a positive impact in the lives of the special education students at the school; however, she wants to make a point that they have equally blessed her, too. In particular, Magana said Adam Bell has made a huge difference in her life, as the two connected almost instantly. Bell is a student at the school, but not enrolled in the gifted soccer program.
“He has changed my life completely with his kindness and incredible personality,” she said.
After Magana’s two-page proposal passed with the special education staff, a meeting was set up with San Benito Principal Adrian Ramirez.
“He seemed really excited about the game,” Magana said.
From there, Magana researched the Special Olympics, knowing the organization has done wonders in starting sports for people with physical and mental challenges. Magana eventually got in contact with Cameron Ahmadian, who is the Area and Unified Regional Sports Manager for the Northern California Special Olympics. On Dec. 13, Ahmadian visited San Benito High to talk with Magana and other staff at the school.
“He explained to us how unified sports work with the Special Olympics,” she said. “They offered us equipment and told us ways we could fundraise to get everyone uniforms. … Going through this process has shown me that you should never quit in all things, whether it’s school, sports or anything else. That as long as you try your best, that is success.”