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Kira Janisch, left, and Erica Patrick from Columbus High School were invited to the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle at the beginning of July.

Best friends Erica Patrick and Kira Janisch have shared a lot through the years, but in a few weeks, they will embark on an experience of a lifetime.

Patrick and Janisch, both recent Columbus High School graduates, have been invited to the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games July 1-6 in Seattle. Organizers are calling it the largest sporting event to come to Seattle since the 1990 Goodwill Games. This year’s USA Games will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, spearheaded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968.

Both Janisch and Patrick will leave for Seattle in late June and can’t wait for the opportunity. For Janisch, it will be her first airplane flight.

“This will be the first time that we’ve been away from home for that many days,” Patrick said.

The USA Games, which occurs every four years, will feature more than 3,000 athletes competing in 14 sports. Janisch won’t be participating in the events, but is excited to watch athletes compete on a large stage. As a Special Olympics athlete at CHS, Janisch competes in basketball, track and bowling.

Joining Patrick and Janisch will be Columbus special education teacher Jahlieh Gardipee.

“It’s really exciting and special for us because we’ve been friends for so long,” Patrick said. “We applied and were hoping to get it but you just don’t know.”

Patrick said the duo is the first members of Unified Champion Schools, a program promoting inclusivity, in Wisconsin to be invited to the USA Games. In addition, Special Olympics athletes from Wisconsin will be competing.

“It’s a huge opportunity, especially considering it’s kind of a sendoff for our senior year and our next chapter in life,” Patrick said.

Through Unified Champions, Columbus High School has worked to become a model of inclusivity among Wisconsin schools. Gardipee is proud to see two of her students earn national recognition.

“I think it’s a true testament to the efforts we’ve done here to make our environment dedicated to accepting everyone regardless of ability,” Gardipee said.

“We have some pretty strong student leaders that are up for any challenge and willing to push the envelope and break through limits.

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“It’s an incredible opportunity; it really hasn’t hit us how big it is. It only happens every four years and Team Wisconsin has never brought a Unified pair, so for (Janisch and Patrick) to go, after being friends since third grade, it makes sense for these two to go together, representing inclusive programming and Unified schools in Wisconsin.”

Patrick and Janisch are hoping to meet new friends and learn about other inclusive programs from across the country.

“It will be a nice time to figure out what other states are doing and idea-swap,” Gardipee said. “I’m really looking forward to networking and making connections with other educators.”

For Patrick, who plans to enter the special education field, a chance to network at the USA Games could prove valuable. She plans to continue to work for and advocate for students with special needs after attending college at UW-Madison.

Earlier this spring, Columbus High School produced a video highlighting the school’s inclusive culture and Unified Champion Schools. The video can be viewed at facebook.com/erica.patrick.73/videos/1686048398177524/

“The video got a boatload of positive comments and it was just great to see the community come together,” Patrick said.

Gardipee said Columbus has become a model for inclusion in recent years and other districts are looking to CHS for ideas. She hopes energy from hard work at CHS will inspire other districts to create more inclusive programs. Gardipee said each Unified school uses programs in different ways behind the core principles of respecting and accepting everyone regardless of ability and to promote independence and opportunity for students with disabilities.

Patrick said many of the events will be televised on ESPN and she expects to see some celebrities at the USA Games as well.

“They said Chris Pratt will be there, so I’m hoping for that,” Patrick said.

For Patrick and Janisch, it’s a chance to strengthen a special bond formed more than a decade ago. With her best friend at her side, Janisch has enjoyed attending football and basketball games, school dances and track and field events. On May 25, Janisch and Patrick walked out of the CHS gym together after receiving their diplomas.

Janisch said Patrick is always looking out for her.

“She is pretty and sweet,” Janisch said. “She always takes care of me.”

Contact Kevin Damask at 608-963-7323 or on Twitter @kdamask

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