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When Ashley Schroff came up short in her attempt to make it onto the Lompoc High School softball team last year, it could have marked a personal setback for the teenager.

Instead of getting down about it, however, Schroff helped inspire something much bigger at the school.

Schroff, now a senior, is one of about 20 student participants in Lompoc High School’s new Project Unify Club, which is based on a Special Olympics program that brings together students enrolled in both special and general education classes for athletic competitions.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Schroff, who participated in Special Olympics programs at Righetti High School before transferring to Lompoc High two years ago. “(Playing sports) was a lot of fun.”

The club, which was officially approved by the Lompoc Unified School District Board of Education on Feb. 9, has two main components. The first is a weekly get-together among general and special education students in which the kids will participate in activities together, and the second involves the students competing together in athletics against similar teams from other schools.

The club’s first athletic competition is tentatively set to be a home basketball game in mid-May against Cabrillo High School, which is in the early stages of starting a similar program. The schools are planning to then face off at Cabrillo two weeks later.

Marjie Ledgerwood, a tennis coach and special education teacher at LHS, is the club’s adviser and its founder.

Ledgerwood said she had been looking at bringing Project Unify to Lompoc for a few years, but she was particularly inspired by Schroff’s tryout last year.

To learn more about the ins and outs of the program, Ledgerwood traveled to Oakley to visit Freedom High School, which had already instituted Project Unify.

“I had a chance to learn a lot from the program they’re running,” she said. “All the feedback from the parents and the students was real positive. I think it would benefit our students here to kind of have that same experience and opportunities to interact.”

The club had its second meeting Wednesday afternoon in Ledgerwood’s classroom. About 15 students attended the meeting, which was held during the school’s lunch break, and they discussed future activities and played games as they enjoyed hot dogs and chips together.

Senior Hannah Pulliam, a general education student, said she was glad she decided to join the club.

“I was really excited about it,” she said of attending that first meeting. “I came to check it out and the next thing you know, I’m jotting down T-shirt orders.

“I love meeting new people and I love helping people,” she added.

Pulliam said part of her inspiration comes from having an autistic sister. She said she’d like to help the club’s students with special needs become more involved in activities around school.

“Eventually, we hope to get these kids to be comfortable enough to come out on the patio and play games with us and things like that and get them to interact with the other students,” she said. “I think that’ll be good for everyone.”

Anthony Gomez, an LUSD instructional assistant with special education, said he thinks the program is a great way to get students involved in areas they otherwise wouldn’t explore.

“I think it’s just a great way for all the kids on campus to get to know the other kids on this campus,” said Gomez, who isn’t directly involved in the program, but works with some of the participants. “You don’t have to be an athletic jock-type to compete in sports and have fun. There shouldn’t be any barriers that kids have to cross to have fun in sports.”

Of the club’s 20 or so members, it is almost evenly divided between students in special and general education classes, though Ledgerwood noted that “the idea is that you can’t tell.”

Ledgerwood said she is looking forward to seeing a change on campus once the club kicks into full gear.

“There’s still a lot to go, but I’m hoping some of this has a pretty powerful effect on some of our kids,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about: creating opportunities for the kids to have a connection to school and to each other.”

Freshman Ricky Alvarado, who is enrolled in special education classes, didn’t hesitate when asked what inspired him to join the club.

“Being with the cheerleaders,” he said with a big smile.

Schroff, who recommended bringing the Special Olympics program to Lompoc, said she’s only particularly looking forward to one thing.

“Just having fun.”

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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