By Jean Schurman
Everyone knows of the benefits of inclusive education for those with mental and physical disabilities. But the students at Victor are realizing how all students benefit. Leading the way are Jon Wilson and Chris Clare. Wilson is a junior who began volunteering with Special Olympics a couple of years ago. Clare is a senior who has been competing in Special Olympics for several years. The two spoke to the high school last week about Project UNIFY. LeAnn Dolly-Powell, the director of the Montana Project UNIFY program, also spoke about the program.
Special Olympics Project UNIFY is a program that has been developed by the Department of Education. It is an education- and sports-based program designed to increase athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities with emphasis on acceptance and respect. There are three components of the program: inclusive sports, whole school engagement, and youth leadership and advocacy.
Dolly-Powell said that Victor was already doing all three components and with this recognition, more resources will open up for the school. “Victor was already naturally doing the things this program emphasizes. This is a national program and will give Victor more resources and funding to expand the program.”
Victor’s involvement in Project UNIFY includes students and staff volunteering for Special Olympics at events such as the Polar Plunge and Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics, fundraising for Special Olympics, and whole school involvement. This year’s theme at the Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics was “Pirates” so it was a natural fit for the Victor Pirates to be involved. The elementary classes did art projects that were used to decorate for the dinner/dance held on the first night of the winter event. A portion of concessions proceeds from the football and basketball games are donated to the Victor Special Olympics team. The school also awarded a varsity letter to Clare and one other student for their participation in Special Olympics. Clare was crowned the Homecoming King last fall.
Wilson and Clare spoke about the effects words have on students and people in general, in particular, the use of ‘retard’. A couple of videos were shown depicting how devastating this word can be. They then talked about ‘Spread the word to end the word,’ in short, replace the ‘R-word’ with another r-word, ‘Respect.’ The use of the derogatory term destroys confidence among society’s most innocent and the two encouraged the audience to take the pledge to end the word.
Wilson said he was looking for an opportunity to volunteer and chose Special Olympics in 2010. “I didn’t realize the effect it would have on me,” he said. “It has been life-changing.”
Wilson and Clare are on the state steering committee for Project UNIFY. They attended the national convention of the North American Youth Activation Committee for Project UNIFY in North Carolina. Wilson is also a member of Victor’s BPA (Business Professionals of America) chapter. This organization is the leading fundraiser for Special Olympics in Montana. Last year the state BPA raised over $8,000. Wilson and Clare, along with other members of the Victor chapter attended the state convention where the duo spoke.
“There were 1,300 people there,” said Wilson. “When Chris gave his speech, he received a standing ovation.”
Clare then gave the same speech to the Victor students. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he first started competing at Special Olympics but soon found out it was a lot of fun. He then went on to say “the R-word is like poison. It hurts someone so much that they can’t really live with themselves. So I hope the R-word can change and we can light the tunnel that is so dark right now.”
The students were given an opportunity to sign a pledge to ‘spread the word to end the word.’ As they filed on stage to sign, many were wearing tee shirts with the slogan on it. They also got to look at the banner that Dolly-Powell presented to the school. This will have several smaller banners attached to it as Victor achieves more and more goals of Project UNIFY.
Martha Jaquith, the special education teacher at Victor, was pleased with the recognition. She said that it was nice to know they were already on the right track and this would give them more guidance.
Superintendent Lance Pearson said that Project UNIFY is a great program. “It takes the core values of kindness, compassion and respect that we already emphasize and lets us build on them.”
Clare was so excited that ‘his’ school had been recognized for this important work and that his fellow students were taking the pledge to make respect the new ‘R-word.’
“Oh my goodness, it’s the best feeling, there’s nothing like it.”