Special Olympics, Youth Leadership and Whole School Engagement for the Win!

Special Olympics and Great Falls Public Schools have had a long standing relationship. Even during a pandemic, both organizations are collaborating together to benefit to build an inclusive environment for all students. One of Special Olympics program’s “Unified Champions Schools” sets out just to do that.

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Sandy Brown, USC District Assistant for Great Falls area schools, works directly with teachers and staff to create  “accepting” school environments for students with and without intellectual disabilities. Unified Champion Schools is a program composed of three interconnected components: Special Olympics Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership, and Whole School Engagement.

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Teresa Rainforth, UCS District Coordinator, works with the District Assistants in each of the four targeted school districts in MT: Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls and Kalispell to support SO activities, teachers, and students.  She also works to recruit teams for the State YAC-Youth Activation Committee. 

The goal is for each student, both with and without intellectual disabilities, to be agents of change not only in their school, but across the state.

A team consists of a Unified Partner, a SO Athlete, and an Adult Ally.  Another aspect of her job is to work with early childhood programs across the state to offer the Young Athletes programming.

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These programs offer activities that equip young people with knowledge, skills, and tools to help support positive school climates and meaningful inclusion. Once implemented, the programs become an integral part of the school’s community while empowering all students to be models of positivity.

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Recently, Sandy and Teresa have initiated the “Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader” challenge in PK-6 in GFPS. This CoVid-friendly contest encourages teachers to read and discuss supplied books that promote acceptance and inclusive behaviors.

Every teacher has a chance to win one of the four book selections for their classroom throughout the school year. This program fulfills the whole school engagement component of the Unified School Champion Pledge for the year while also supporting reading and listening academic standards. This collaboration meets goals of both programs in a way that is not intrusive of either.

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Sandy also is collaborating with Opportunities Head Start to implement the Young Athletes’ Sports Program to begin in the new year. Young Athletes is a Sports and Play program for children with and without intellectual disabilities for ages 2-7. It introduces basic foundational sports’ skills like throwing, kicking, running, etc. Opportunities Head Start’s intent is to use this sports and play program, in conjunction with other resources, to meet their physical education goals.

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As a former teacher in the Great Falls Public Schools, Sandy sees the need and benefit of working together as two very important community organizations.

Sandy states, “These programs give children with and without disabilities the opportunity to discover their talents and strengths, build friendships and acceptance, and to advocate for themselves and their peers to make a difference in their own community.”

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Having experience as a Kindergarten and Preschool Special Education teacher, Teresa agrees and explains, “Special Olympic programs offer opportunities for children and families to be included, to have a voice and to belong from an early age. The partnership offers an avenue for lasting friendships to develop and helps to promote understanding and acceptance for everyone, no matter their skills or ability level. 

The message is clear…Each person is valuable and has something meaningful to contribute and that attitude benefits us all.”

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Jamie McGraw, GFPS liaison to Special Olympics Montana and Associate Principal at CMR, says, “Coordinating GFPS programming with Special Olympics and Unified Champion Schools benefits our students by highlighting what is best about both organizations– teaching children to support one another through friendship, kindness, inclusion, and engagement.” 

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Sandy works with GFPS staff members to naturally embed academic and physical activities that meet standards and promote values important to both organizations.  Because of her work and our staff members dedication to supporting UCS, students have additional opportunities to develop leadership skills and foster genuine relationships with their peers.  

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At CMR, a variety of student groups and individuals have made inclusion a priority by participating in unified sports, supporting Special Olympics state games for the last three years, and serving as mentors in resource classrooms through our Exceptionalities program. 

GFPS knows that our community is stronger when all students feel connected and have opportunities to lead and serve one another.

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GFPS and Special Olympics’ relationship remains strong and remains committed to GFPS students and the Great Falls community as a whole.