National Guard Inspirational Athlete Alyssa Covarrubia helps to educate fellow students about disability-related issues.
Fernie Valles, Oñate High (Las Cruces, N.M.) softball coach, doesn’t often play freshmen on his varsity squad. Yet as he watched petite 5-foot-4 Alyssa Covarrubia running into a fence to catch a fly ball or diving into a base head first, he couldn’t help but think he was witnessing someone special.
“You don’t often get a girl like her,” Valles said.
In many ways.
Covarrubia serves as president of Oñate’s Advocates in Action (AIA), a student club that aims to educate the student body about disability-related issues. Her leadership and diligence raising awareness is being honored by USA TODAY High School Sports and the Army National Guard with the Inspiration Award, presented to 15 student-athletes across the nation who go above and beyond in their communities, and whose loyalty inspires others to better themselves.
Members of AIA, advised by Thea Kavanaugh, a recreational therapist for Las Cruces Public Schools, organize the annual New Mexico Special Olympics Project UNIFY softball competition, and Covarrubia is once again leading the planning initiatives.
The competition, in its third year, is the largest Special Olympics and Project UNIFY event in New Mexico. Project UNIFY, a federal program supported by the U.S. Department of Education, encourages the use of sports, service and student-directed awareness campaigns to grow respect for and promote inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Covarrubia credits her younger brother, Keith, who was born with Down syndrome, as her inspiration for getting involved with AIA.
Born just a year apart, she often watched over her brother growing up. Her father, Bobby, said Alyssa learned a lot about responsibility in middle school, ensuring Keith completed his homework and made it to the bus and to classes on time.
Admittedly protective toward her brother, Covarrubia said she was always quick to warn others not to tease him, and she constantly made an effort to include her brother in activities — from teaching him how to play basketball, to reading, to making the perfect quesadilla. Their close bond compelled Covarrubia to bring awareness to and teach others how to treat people with disabilities.
“I learned acceptance the minute he was born,” Covarrubia said. “Most people think of people with special needs as beneath them, and they don’t need their respect. People don’t understand them, and therefore they don’t know how to react.”
As a freshman, Covarrubia designed uniforms for the softball competition, helped with sponsorships and organized and coached the twice-weekly hourlong practices, which started two months in advance of the competition.
“I did not expect her to be as involved as she was. She surprised me,” said senior pitcher Rebecca Whitlock, AIA’s former public relations manager. “One day she was timid and shy, and the next day she was making friends with everyone in the club and sharing ideas. She contributed an amazing amount.”
Eager to involve herself to a larger degree, Covarrubia stepped up as president this year and will serve as one of AIA’s main planners for the softball competition, which is tentatively scheduled for this fall.
Last year, the 30-player competition drew approximately 150 student volunteers from Oñate, double the number from the first year. Participants included individuals from the student body, special needs students and members from the softball, baseball, volleyball, tennis and track teams.
In addition to increasing the group’s participants and volunteers, this year Covarrubia wants to outreach in the Las Cruces Public School District and convince other schools to establish Advocates in Action and Project UNIFY groups.
Covarrubia said she has noticed a transformed perception, one of greater respect toward students with disabilities, as a result of the competition the past two years. She’s witnessed fellow students make a conscience effort to greet special needs students or offer to help them if needed.
“It makes me emotional,” Covarrubia said. “That means the world.”