Walk through the hallways at Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado and you will be quick to realize that inclusion is the norm. Savannah Rock, recent Grandview graduate and Special Olympics Colorado youth leader, has played an integral role in the development of her school’s Unified program and fostering an atmosphere of acceptance that radiates throughout classrooms and onto the playing field. Inspired by her brother, Kalin Rock, a Special Olympics athlete, Savannah has always been an inclusion advocate. Her involvement with Special Olympics expands beyond her former position as the president of Grandview’s Unified club. She is an active member of her state’s Youth Activation Committee, youth representative on the Special Olympics Colorado Board of Directors, and was recently honored as one of Colorado’s Top Youth Volunteers through the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. Along with Special Olympics athlete, Mae Robison, Savannah represented Colorado at the Youth Leadership Experience during the 2018 USA Special Olympics Games. Youth Voices for a Unified Generation sat down with Savannah to learn about her perspective on what it means to play, lead, and live inclusively.
How were you first introduced to Special Olympics?
I learned about Special Olympics and Unified when my brother, Kalin, who is a Special Olympics athlete, was a student at Grandview High School. I was only in 5th grade, but I was inspired to bring the program to Liberty Middle School. After countless meetings that extended all the way to the district level and new school administration was in place, the Unified program was finally launched when I was in 8th grade. Over 150 students showed up for our first Unified club meeting. It just increased from there, and the club is still continuing today.
How did you further get involved with Unified in high school?
I became the youngest president of our Project Unify club at Grandview High School as a sophomore. I started Unified flag football and coached Unified basketball junior through senior year. Our coach only let juniors and seniors participate in Unified sports, but letting me in as a sophomore was a huge deal for him. We had 30 officers of our Unified club and we organized a full-on Inclusion Week my senior year.
What did Inclusion Week look like?
I started the first Inclusion Week which was tied in with the End with the R-Word campaign. It was a full spirit week at our school which was a huge deal. We incorporated all of our other clubs and sports teams-150 altogether! Everyone came together to decorate all 233 doors in our schools with sayings about inclusion. Yes, I still remember the exact number of doors!
Shirts that said “We Believe in Each Other” were handed out and at lunch, students would come up to the table where we were selling the shirts to tell us about the kind things that they have done. A chain of kindness resulted because spreading kindness is a chain reaction. At the end of the week, we attached the chain of kindness down our hallway. If you have been to Grandview, it is a pretty long hallway. Many teachers have come up to me saying how they have seen change this year in regard to inclusion in our school.
When you walk down the halls at Grandview High School, what does inclusion look like?
The Special Olympics athletes are the superstars at Grandview. They are the most popular kids and everyone gives them high fives in the hallways. It is the Grandview way. There will always be cliques in high school, but these cliques at Grandview include the Special Olympics athletes. As a freshman, there were five people in the Unified club. My junior year, there were 100 people in our Unified club. Not one person at Grandview has come up to me since my freshman year and asked what Unified is. Everyone knows what Unified is.
Has your experience as a sibling of a Special Olympics athlete influenced your leadership with Special Olympics?
Absolutely! My brother is six years older than me, but I have always been his greatest advocate. Through this advocacy, I have gained leadership skills starting at a young age. As a 5th grader, I never saw a difference between my brother and my friends. Having him in my life has had a big influence on me and my involvement with Special Olympics.
You recently returned from the Youth Leadership Experience which took place at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. Can you describe this opportunity?
During the games, we shadowed different Special Olympics Colorado and Special Olympics North America staff members. We were Young Athletes volunteers and we participated in a social media experience where we interviewed athletes, coaches, volunteers, and parents. Through this opportunity, I realized that we all have different stories, but we have all share the same vision of living Unified.
What does it mean to be a leader of the Unified Generation?
It means the world to me to be part of the Unified Generation — to help spread change and inclusion. No is different or should be seen as different. I think the world is finally catching up to that. It is hard for adults to accept that we use different language now (in reference to people with intellectual disabilities) and that the world is changing and that they have to change to.
To be part of this generation and to be able to change perceptions is one of the best experiences I will ever be able to have.