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Yosemite high seniors earn Special Olympics Volunteer of the Year award

Yosemite high seniors Peyton Garner and Amy Young have been named Special Olympics Northern California Youth Volunteers of the Year, after a dedicated senior project led the Badgers to be named a Special Olympics Champion School.

A special senior project has resulted in a major award for two Yosemite high school students. Payton Garner and Amy Young have been named Special Olympics Northern California Youth Volunteers of the Year.

Every school day, Yosemite high seniors Peyton Garner and Amy Young know they're going to smile. That's because every day since Peyton and Amy were freshmen, they've worked with the special education class as peer helpers.

"These kids are absolutely pure souls," says Amy. "Like they just are so happy all the time. And it's my favorite class guaranteed. Everyone's always like 'Hi Amy!' and like wants to give you a hug and it's always such a good environment. It's kind of given me a positive outlook on life."

Over the years, Peyton and Amy noticed - while the special education students simply wanted to be part of their school, same as everyone else - too many of the girls' general education classmates just didn't get it.

"They don't talk to them, they avoid eye contact," says Peyton. "And so that was a big problem for me, being so involved with special needs and then my mom being a special needs teacher, that was a problem for me that people were treating them with such little respect and like they weren't human."

So, this past summer, the girls hatched an idea for their senior project - bring Special Olympics to Yosemite for the first time - and make sports a gateway to inclusion.

"The kids love to play sports," says Peyton's mom, special education teacher Jennifer Garner. "It's something that's exciting. Everybody loves to participate in sports and they love to be with their peers."

Under Peyton and Amy's leadership, the Badgers started competing in Unified Sports tournaments, where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team and cheer each other on. In the fall, they had a soccer team.

"I don't think I've spent a day crying - crying happy tears all day like that in a long time," says Jennifer. "It was, I think by far the best work day I've ever had."

In the winter, the Badgers played basketball, and now in the spring are doing track and field.

“A lot of high schools they look at athletes as someone you want to be like," says Peyton. "So getting the varsity athletes involved playing Unified Sports definitely has opened the eyes of a lot of people around campus.”

Peyton and Amy also recently led an "R Word" rally on campus, where they asked every student at Yosemite to pledge to stop using the word "retard."

"The R word shows lack of sensitivity, compassion and understanding," Amy told her classmates. "It's insulting and offensive. A disability does not define a person."

Peyton added, "That word is dehumanizing, cruel and hurtful. So I stand here today asking you, 'will you help me spread the word to end the word and help me change the R word to respect.'"

That day, Yosemite officially became a Special Olympics Champion School, thanks to the countless dedicated hours of two seniors. From now on, at this Oakhurst high school, more students will know what Peyton and Amy know, and share in what Peyton and Amy experience. Which should be one more reason for these girls to smile.

"Mine and Peyton's goal is to make these students included and give them the equal opportunity any other high school student would have," says Amy. "They deserve it just as much as we do."

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