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Story Last modified at 6:02 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Partners form special bonds
Chugiak club is breaking down barriers between students

Alaska Star


Chugiak freshman Mackenzie Matthis helps Samantha Hoffman make a baton transfer during a relay race in Palmer on April 30.
Star photo by Matt Tunseth

High school can be a lonely place. Imagine swimming against a tide of energetic bodies rushing to get to class. Imagine being ignored as you struggle to navigate the packed hallways. Imagine being surrounded by your peers – yet feeling completely alone.

Chugiak High special education teacher Jill Besse says this is often the reality of high school for her students.

"We tend to become somewhat of an isolated program sometimes," Besse said.

It doesn't have to be that way. A small – but growing – group of students at Chugiak High is now part of the Partners Club, a unique program that pairs special-needs students with those from the general student population for athletic competition and camaraderie.

By all accounts, the program – in its first year at Chugiak – has been a resounding success.

"The journey has been amazing," said freshman Tristyn Hall, the club's vice president.

Hall, who plays for the Chugiak varsity soccer team, said she wanted to get involved with the club because it combines athletics and community service.

"I love helping others through sports, and this was just one way I could," she said.

Chugiak teacher Duncan Shackelford – the school's head football coach – is the club's adviser. Shackelford said he was contacted before the school year by Jim Balamaci, the head of Special Olympics in Alaska, asking if he'd be interested in starting a club at Chugiak.

"I said, 'OK cool. Tell me what I gotta do,' " Shackelford said.

Shackelford's first task was to recruit students into the club, and he said he went after some of the best that the school has to offer.

"You want to get people involved that other people look up to," he said.

It's no accident that most of the students he recruited are involved in interscholastic athletics.


Partners participants Dustin McCormick and Danielle Cash high five each other during the Palmer Relays April 30 at Machetanz Field in Palmer. The Partners program at Chugiak High pairs special-needs students with school athletes to encourage friendship and training.
Star photo by Matt Tunseth

"I go after athletes on purpose," he said. "Athletes have a special drive, and I think a love to teach their sport."

Freshman Mackenzie Matthis – who made three varsity teams this year – said joining the club has been a highlight of her year.

"I really enjoy working with them," she said. "The time flies. I think we've been there five minutes and it's been an hour and a half."

Student partners like Matthis and Hall meet with their special-needs athletes a couple times a week for training sessions. The partners also frequently meet the athletes for lunch.

"They're really good kids," said Jake Brownlee, a freshman sprinter on the Chugiak track team.

Earlier this year, the group entered a Special Olympics floor hockey tournament. Most recently, they took part in the Palmer Relays, an annual event that incorporates Special Olympics events into the regular meet schedule.

The Mustangs dominated, picking up wins in both heats of the 4x100 meter relay, a feat that had Brownlee so excited that he called Shackelford (who was unable to attend) on his cell phone immediately afterward.

"He was legitimately fired up about it," Shackelford said. "To me that was so cool to hear."

At Palmer, the athletes and partners took part in both running and jumping events, and it was hard to tell who was more excited to be there. After each team member – athletes and partners alike – took their jump into the long jump pit, high-fives and hugs immediately followed.

"They were jazzed," Shackelford said.

Many of the club members this year are freshman, which Shackelford said was intentional because he wants the club to eventually be student-driven.

"Next year they're taking the darn thing over," Shackelford said.

He also said he wanted to recruit kids who are positive role models in the school community.

"I got these kids because they're self-motivated, they're good people with good morals and ethics," he said. "They're going to be leaders for the rest of their lives."

Teacher Jill Besse said the program has been an unqualified success. And while the fitness and coaching her students gain from their partners is a major benefit, she said the biggest positive is simply the connections that are formed between the different groups of kids.

"To me, the greater part is the friendships," she said.

It's difficult for special-needs students to fit in, she said, and the club has helped to break down many of the barriers that keep her kids isolated.

"It's nice to be able to walk down the hallway and have someone say hi to you," she said.

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.