This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lake Highlands High School senior Kirsten Leffler loves music, superheroes and heading to the beach. She wears her shiny hair in a ponytail and is excited about graduation. She works to blend in at LHHS and, in many ways, she’s no different from her classmates. But Leffler was born with DiGeorge Syndrome, also known as 22Q. It’s a genetic disorder caused when parts of the 22nd chromosome are missing.

Leffler was one of many students with special needs from LHHS, LHJH and Forest Meadow participating in the Wildcat Games Friday. The kids, some in wheelchairs, ran races, got their faces painted and enjoyed a Field Day atmosphere while “general education” students cheered them from the grandstands.

“It makes me feel good to see my friends out here supporting my sister,” said Sarah Bellew, whose sister, Julia, has Down syndrome. “It’s been hard for her having this disability – she’s not able to be super-involved, and she wants to be. Wildcat Games give them a day to feel special but also to fit in, to feel involved with the whole school.”

Sofia Bidne was also out on the B field, aiding and encouraging the athletes. She said the personal connections made extend outside the playing field and into campus hallways.

“This is so fun – these kids just have the best personalities and spirits. Whenever they have a chance to get outside and run around, they love it. We can’t wait to high five them in the halls and tell them how great they did.”

As an officer on the drill team, Kate Tabor is accustomed to being lauded on the stage or under Friday Night Lights. The Wildcat Games were a chance to flip the script.

“This experience makes them feel very seen. There’s usually so much going on, and this is a great chance for them to be the ones being recognized. I think it’s neat that so many student groups wanted to cheer them on, since they’re usually the ones cheering us on.”

Supporting from the sidelines were LHHS’ band, African Dance Team, Espree, Folklorico, Highlandettes, JROTC, National Honor Society, Step Team, Student Council and Wranglers. Cheerleaders from all 3 schools led the cheers. Katie Barrett, RISD’s chief executive director of special student services, said Wildcat Games are all about inclusion and opportunities.

“I love the feeder pattern connectivity. I love that our junior high kids are up here with our high school kids and the high school kids get to help lead. I’m beyond impressed with the school spirit and that all the gen ed groups are out here. That speaks to the inclusivity of our programming. It’s great knowing that our students receiving support from special education are a part of the LHHS community and all that happens here.”

Ava Arena and her student council leadership team serve as “buddies” to special needs students throughout the year, recently taking them on a trip to the Dallas Zoo.

“We get so much enjoyment out of it,” she told me. “We grow strong connections, and we see that there are fewer differences between us than similarities. To see them win a race out here or overcome a difficulty is so rewarding.”

Addressing her fellow students, Kirsten shared details of her congenital heart condition, called truncus arteriosus, which left her with one artery instead of two. She had surgery at six days old and 18 more surgeries after that.

“I couldn’t walk until I was two, and I couldn’t talk and do what most people do. I also had a poor immune system, which means I get sick easily. I also have learning differences, like it’s hard to understand math and I can’t always read the room. I have memory loss, so memorizing facts is really difficult.”

Leffler wears hearing aids and takes multiple medications for her heart and lungs. She struggles with depression and receives counseling, along with visiting 13 different doctors. Her goal is to find a therapy dog.

“I am grateful for the things I CAN do,” she said, “and I love when I get to volunteer at the animal shelter and spend time with my family and friends. I would like to challenge you today – don’t be quick to judge. Maybe you have a health issue. Maybe you have a learning difference. Maybe you get stressed out. My challenge to you is to give grace and mercy to everyone you meet because you don’t know what they are dealing with.”