The following post was written by Jerry Holy, who has been working with Unified Champion Schools at Special Olympics Headquarters for over 6 years.
Earlier this month, I joined over 250 representatives, coming from 47 U.S. states, 5 Canadian provinces and Latin America, in Columbia, South Carolina. We were brought together for a single cause — Special Olympics Unified Champions Schools. For 3 and a half days, we gathered to learn, network, and exchange ideas at the annual #SOUCSConf.
In case you are unfamiliar, the Unified Champions Schools program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is a strategy to activate youth, engage educators, and promote school communities of acceptance and inclusion where all young people are agents of change. With Unified Sports as the foundation, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools offers a combination of effective interventions that equip young people with tools and training to create sports, classroom and community experiences that reduce bullying and exclusion, promote healthy activity and interactions, combat stereotypes and stigma, eliminate hurtful language in schools, and engage young people in pro-social activities that lead to improved behavior and school climate.
The conference kicked off with keynote addresses from South Carolina State Senator Thomas C. Alexander and Barry Coats, the Special Olympics South Carolina CEO & President. The very next day, attendees were addressed warmly by Columbia’s Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Each day, attendees were able to learn about how Unified Champion Schools has evolved from the past to the present day. We shared amazing impact data, unveiled our new website landing page, refreshed resources, and an amazing heat map I created through Google Fusion Tables!
We also participated in a school visit to Lexington High School. Our five buses of excited participants were given a police escort to the school (which was awesome!) We were greeted be massive crowds of students cheering on the front steps of the school. This was so cool because not only were there students clapping and taking video and photos, but also the steps were covered in handwritten chalk messages of inspiration and motivation.
We witnessed two big events that both were firsts for South Carolina. The inaugural Lexington School District One Athlete Varsity Letter Presentation to 71 Special Olympics Unified Sports participants AND the unveiling of Lexington High School’s National Unified Champion School Banner, which proudly hangs in the school gymnasium.
I will tell you that it was amazing to witness both events! The pride and joy of the athletes receiving their letters and emotions from their parents, peers and friends was a moment I will never forget, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Students from River Bluff High School, White Knoll High School and Lexington High School received their letters. Kevin Negandhi from ESPN assisted with the letter presentation along the principals of each high school and members of Lexington School District One.
The letter presentation was followed by a Unified Pep Rally. The entire gym was jammed packed! The master of ceremonies, Kevin Negandhi, literally got everyone pumped up big time.
Then, the unveiling of the National Unified Champion School Banner sent everyone skyrocketing! Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics, and Melissa Rawl, Principal of Lexington High School, were in attendance on the floor when the banner was unveiled.
After an action-packed and energizing day, we had the opportunity to take in more southern hospitality at the Music Farm. At the Music Farm, there were 8 South Carolina Unified Champion Schools set up for a school exhibition about the great activities happening in each of their schools and local musical talent including a Unified Band Opening Act!
It’s hard to follow such an amazing first day of the conference. Yet the following day and half were full of sessions that had all attendees engaging with each other and the place was abuzz with innovation and ideas. To close the day out, Dan Habib from University of New Hampshire provided a powerful keynote lunch address about inclusion and the future of the disability rights movement.
The final day kicked off with a keynote address from Mary Davis. I had the honor of introducing her and doing a #UnifedSelfie as well! Mary rocked the house and everyone took her words to heart. By the end of the conference, everyone who attended was fired up to bring back what they learned to their Programs and grow their Unified Champion Schools.
I am proud to have done my part to help make this Conference a success & I cannot wait to see what new barriers our school programming breaks this year!