Clara Harris had her goal for this track season laid out in front of her: run in a straight line for 100 meters.
During meets earlier this season, the Morton junior would usually start in Lane 8, and within a few strides she would notice another Governor running a few lanes over. Distracted, Harris would cut across the track and finish her race in the same lane as her teammate.
That was in early April.
In late May, Harris achieved her goal and has been finishing races in the lane she begins them in, as her teammates, which include six girls in coach Marie Herring's peer tutor class, cheer her on.
Harris and senior Kimmlis Berymon have limited cognitive abilities, but to their teammates, they're just Clara and Kimmlis.
"It's pretty much the same, we treat them as we treat others," Morton junior Lilly Hernandez said. "We have the same respect for them."
The peer tutors work with Harris and Berymon during school, helping them with their classes, taking them around school and even going to the local Strack and Van Til. As some of the tutors grew closer to Harris and Berymon, they included the two girls in their social groups, inviting them to hang out with their friends.
When junior Skyler Mata first started bringing girls from her peer tutor class around her friends, they thought it was a little "weird." But Mata quickly set the record straight.
"Just basically (told them), 'Hey, they're hanging out with us, whether you like it or not,'" she said. "Once you get to know them, they're really funny and they're laid back just like everyone else."
When spring rolled around, Berymon joined the track team for the second year and Harris, who had watched the girls run the year before, expressed interest to Herring to join the team as well. Thanks to a revised IHSAA rule, both girls were eligible to run this year.
"I've always had a no-cut policy," Herring said. "There's not necessarily a tryout. This is one sport that they could actually participate in.
"The IHSAA changed rules that if you were a student not on a diploma track, you can participate in sports. I thought this was a great idea for kids to participate with their peers, and it's an after-school activity. A lot of the interaction happens during school and they don't have much opportunity for after-school activities."
At first, the track team -- peer tutors included -- wasn't sure what to think. The girls went about their training as usual, and when they noticed that Harris and Berymon put in the same time and dedication, the team welcomed the two with open arms.
"Kimmlis, she was really shy at the beginning and now she loves to run," junior Eva Mata said. "She's like, 'let's go running,' and now we go running."
Herring began teaching the peer tutor class around 1986, when students with disabilities first started attending Morton. With a degree in physical education, Herring couldn't find a job in the mid-1980s and began teaching a half-day of adaptive PE for students with special needs and the other half in a special education classroom at Wallace Elementary. Before 1986, when special needs students started attending their age-appropriate schools, they were sent to Wallace. Through state grants, Herring said, the peer tutor program evolved. Now, students receive a social studies elective credit.
Some of the six peer tutors on the track team signed up for the class because they have relatives with special needs. Eva Mata said the class has helped her better understand her 19-year-old sister Bianca, who has traumatic brain injury. Hernandez said the class has helped her relate to and care for her 13-year-old brother Juan, who has cerebral palsy.
"Having more patience for him because it's really hard and stressful," Hernandez said, "and since I have to work with different children, I kinda got the knowledge of how they're feeling and what their disability is."
Herring, who is with Harris and Berymon during and after school, said the benefits of being on the team are already evident. They've developed better social and communication skills, and are learning about responsibility, having to be accountable for their uniform, clothing and personal items.
Kim Johnson, the only senior peer tutor on the track team, said she went to elementary school with Berymon, but never interacted with her. She said that since she started working with Berymon and Harris, she's learned a lot.
"It's really different," Johnson said. "It teaches you how to be really patient because it's a really different experience. When you first get into it, it's really overwhelming because you're just not used to everything and how everyone acts."
On the track, the peer tutors protect Harris and Berymon, to make sure they aren't overwhelmed being at a new venue. When other teams start to mouth off, they're the first ones to stand up.
"We defend them when we go to other (schools)," junior Estefany Hinajosa said. "We don't want (other teams) talking stuff about them. It's like we're a big family."
When Harris started naming off her favorite peer tutors, she found three, but pointed at everyone.
And everyone looked back, watching her like she's their friend and their sister.
"I've grown a lot, I've learned a lot from it," Skyler Mata said. "Just because they're different, they have special needs, doesn't mean we have to treat them differently.
"They're just like us."