Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times Hannah Sandoval placed first in the state bowling competition for the Special Olympics.
Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times Hannah Sandoval placed first in the state bowling competition for the Special Olympics. (Augusta Liddic)
FARMINGTON — While a young program, a collaboration between Farmington schools and the Special Olympics is already paying dividends in gold and silver, with two special education students returning from a state bowling competition Saturday with medals around their neck.

Students in LaDonna Hampton's class at Ladera Del Norte Elementary have been practicing their bowling skills at Bowlero Lanes on Friday mornings since early September in anticipation of last Friday's Special Olympics regional competition.

The students have been bowling with volunteers from Farmington High School as part of Project Unify, a program designed to promote disability awareness and inclusion in schools.

"I was excited, with so many kids, I didn't know they would place," Hampton said. "They were sending me updates through my phone and texting me, it was exciting."

Special Olympics Area Director Debra Lisenbee said Project Unify provides opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to be paired with students without those disabilities to help each gain awareness and understanding.

"A lot of kids are scared because they don't understand," Lisenbee said. "They want to be seen as people first and not their disability."

Lisenbee said children tend to learn more from their peers than from their parents or teachers and the Special Olympics with Project Unify donates equipment for activities that help achieve their goal.

"Everyone's budgets have been cut and we have been able to provide some equipment for some support," Lisenbee said. "I told the director the other day, "I feel like Santa Claus.'"

Ladera student Jasmine Justice placed first at regionals while Hannah Sandoval placed second and Reece Martinez took third, qualifying Justice and Hannah for the state competition Saturday at the Santa Ana Star Casino in Bernalillo.

In their age bracket, Hannah took first place, Justice followed her with second place.

Hannah, 10, who has Down syndrome, was excited and happy to have had the chance to bowl with Justice in the state competition.

"It felt good," Hannah said. "It's fun."

Hannah's mother, Kelli Sandoval, said Hannah loves to bowl with the bumpers on, rolling the ball down the alley while bouncing side to side.

For the Special Olympics competition, athletes who have difficulty with the weight of the ball use a ramp assist. The ramp guides the ball and the athletes line up their shot and release, in hopes of knocking down all the pins for a strike.

"She's been bowling since she could pick up a bowling ball," Sandoval said. "It was great to see her smile and be proud of herself and her friend."

It was Hannah's teacher Hampton who suggested Hannah participate in the competition.

"(Hampton) said Hannah has been enjoying it and it would be really good for her," Sandoval said. "We didn't know what to expect since we hadn't attended any of these before."

Bowling is just one of Hannah's activities. She started riding horses at age 3, playing T-ball at age 5 and has been attending the Kelly Green Dance Camp for the last two years.

While Sandoval was describing her daughter's love of bowling, Hannah was lining up her next shot at the Bowlero Lanes, guiding the bowling ball down the middle of the lane, and knocking down all 10 pins for a strike.

She immediately ran back to Sandoval, who was waiting with both of her hands up, ready to give two high fives in congratulations.

"Our family is new to the Special Olympics and it has been a great experience," Sandoval said.