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Rice students volunteer to help kids with special needs - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Rice students volunteer to help kids with special needs

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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Every Tuesday at Rice Memorial High School, students become teachers working with children in the community with the help of Special Olympics Vermont.

"I went to them this fall and asked them what we could do and they brought us this young athletes program and they wanted to know where we could do it," said Morgan Sleeman, a senior at Rice.

The cafeteria is transformed into a gymnasium for kids with special needs. The program is free and is geared toward helping kids ages 2 through 7.

"We do some different activities with floor markers, colors, shapes, jumping, we work on basic motor skills," said Sleeman.

"Studies have been done that have demonstrated the development of a child with a disability, an intellectual disability, is accelerated through participation in sports and through some of this early intervention and physical therapy," said Special Olympics CEO Lisa Denatale.

It's a learning process for both the young athletes and the 23 student volunteers who plan the activities every week. It's just one of many opportunities offered to help students complete community service requirements for graduation. For 4-year-old Addison's mom watching from the sideline, the program helps her daughter develop her low muscle tone.

"The class goes at a little bit of a slower pace so it really helps cater to her speed a little bit and she really gets a lot from it, she loves to come here," said Deanna Smith, a parent.

Addison's 2-year-old brother, Carter, also attends, giving him a chance to interact with other physically challenged children.

"I love seeing the kids every single week, seeing their skills, seeing how bright and enthusiastic and energetic they can be every single week no matter what's happening," said Sleeman.

The school's mission is to help students develop their gifts and to teach them to do the same for others.

"I hope that they see the dignity in each person and realize even though people are different, we still have so much to add to each other's lives," said Mary Kelly, director of campus ministry.

"I think it helps develop that heart of compassion for someone who might not have a sibling with special needs or know someone personally," said Smith.

Students are trained by the Special Olympics and receive community service hours for volunteering. Right now, Rice Memorial High School and West Rutland High School are the only schools in the state with a program geared toward young children with disabilities but plans are in the works to expand.

"We'd like to continue to grow the program so that we can reach more athletes, more young families throughout the state and get introduced to the Special Olympics," said Denatale.

"I have learned so much about my classmates, they are amazing with these kids. They really understand them and want to help and they're doing fantastic," said Sleeman.

It's a program geared toward bridging the gap between students and learning and building relationships.

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