Goals for a great cause: Service and South High continue to promote inclusion with unified soccer

May 2—The annual TEAL (Take Early Action and Live) game between the varsity soccer teams of rival schools Service and South High promoted two great causes Tuesday night.

Not only did it serve as a fundraiser to benefit gynecological cancer research, but also sandwiched in between the the boys and girls high school games was a very special event in which everyone involved was a winner.

The Partners Clubs for both schools took the field to participate in a unified soccer game where plenty of goals were scored — but even more importantly, each program's special education students were cheered on and celebrated.

This year marked the first inter-school unified matchup between the two South Anchorage schools since the game's inception in 2019.

"It was just a southside battle, and I think it's great to see kids coming together for a great cause and something bigger than themselves," Service unified coach Adam Ahonen said. "The fact that they're out here with their partners that have intellectual disabilities and creating opportunities for them is a really cool thing to see for the community."

Service has played against the Dimond and West Anchorage Partners Clubs as well as hosted an alumni game.

Ahonen has been involved in the Partners Club at Service for the past 20 years and coach of the Cougars' unified team since its inception in 2019.

Born and raised in Minnesota, he came to Alaska after accepting a teaching position, but his experience with special education students in athletics dates back to his time working with Special Olympics back home.

"I became a special education teacher, got a job, moved up here, and this is my 20th year teaching at Service," Ahonen said.

The Partners Club is a student-led organization, and the inclusion that it promotes and inspires stretches from the student body to the faculty.

"Our administration has been super supportive, our community is super supportive of it and the kids continue to keep it going," Ahonen said. "They're the ones who make those true connections and help kids involved with all the activities and within the school."

Colin Ely teaches life skills to special education students at South, and this marks his third year of involvement in the Partners Club as a teacher as well as being the school's unified team coach.

He's been in the profession for 18 years. His mother was a special educator in the Anchorage School District for three decades and mentored Ahonen at Service.

"I helped out a bunch growing up and in high school with the Special Olympics, and I just felt a real connection with the students and felt like I could make a positive impact in the school and community," Ely said.

As a Service alum who graduated in 2012, giving back to the community he grew up in and continuing his work through events such as the unified game remains a passion of his.

"This is what sports is all about. Bringing people together unified through sports no matter their ability or disability is really special," Ely said.

The Partners Clubs do other events throughout the year that involve scholastic sports and recreational activities, including track and field, bowling, skiing and weekly meetings.

"We try to get our students involved as much with the general education students as we can, and especially doing it through sport is a good way and is really positive," Ely said.

Perspective and inspiration

Senior Wiktoria Grochowski, president of the Partners Club at Service, was inspired to carry on the strong tradition of inclusion the school has built up over the years.

"I've been involved since my freshman year, and coming to Service, I just noticed that the environment is so inclusive and I knew I wanted to help promote that," she said.

Having been part of the leadership group since her first year with the program, Grochowski believes the Partners Club has made students more comfortable and willing to be more open.

"You can see our students coming out of their shells when their peers come and help them out, and being part of these community activities helps them so much," she said. "I'm so glad to be a part of it and it just makes me happy."

Being part of one the biggest and most long-standing unified teams instills a sense of pride within the students at Service, and they're happy to see other schools building up and establishing teams of their own.

"It's so great that it's popping up all over the (Anchorage School District) now," Grochowski said.

Service senior Hannah Katchen has been part of the school's Partners Club since the second semester of her freshman year, after she started her high school journey with hybrid learning in fall 2020. She saw the club as an opportunity to get to know more people once in-person classes resumed.

"The Partners Club is in the center of the school, so you walk by the Hall, and Mr. (Ahonen) is outside and you just want to join," Katchen said. "It's so welcoming and how you meet a lot of friends."

As a multisport athlete who participates in myriad extracurricular activities, including swimming, flag football, hockey and soccer, she was happy to see special education students get a taste of the fanfare and jubilation that comes with getting to play in front of a crowd.

"It was especially awesome between the two big TEAL games. There were still some fans in the stands, and it was super hype and super fun," Katchen said.