There is great camaraderie in a high school classroom, a sense of community intensified through committed instructors, inclusive classmates and, inherently, through sports. Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® is advancing the concept of schools that welcome all people, with and without intellectual disabilities, comprised of inclusive generations. Equipping young people with tools to embody a climate of acceptance, these schools challenge the systems before them to make inclusive spaces fundamental.
At Smithfield-Selma High School in Smithfield, North Carolina, Jenny Yang, Nathaniel Beliveau, Raquel Fuentes, Emily Stuckey and their teacher and Unified Club advisor, Ms. Bethany Jones, are instigating inclusive change all the way through the ranks of student government. Celebrating their third year as a Unified Champion School, this foursome was mobilized during the coronavirus pandemic to take on positions of leadership in the Special Olympics movement. All participants in Special Olympics North Carolina’s (SONC) at-home fitness program, Partner Up Power Up, two Unified partners, Yang and Stuckey, students without intellectual disabilities, and two Special Olympics athletes, Beliveau and Fuentes, have taken drastic steps toward systematic change.
“During the pandemic, we had spirit weeks once a month,” explained Jones. “Jenny and Nathaniel, who have potential for some great leadership, were partnered together. He and Jenny are hilarious together. She is super quiet and meek and he is very matter-of-fact.”
As part of these designated spirit weeks, Yang and Beliveau would write stories together, Yang authoring the content and Beliveau providing the illustrations. Jones would record the reading of their stories, featuring the illustrations. Both involved in the school’s Youth Activation Council, Yang posed the question, “Can Nathaniel and I run for student government?”
With inclusion at the forefront of their platform, the duo will soon assume the roles of project managers for the Student Advisory Council, developing concepts for spirit weeks, proms, powderpuff football and homecoming. Their first public appearance; however, was as emcees for two of the weekly Partner Up Power Up fitness sessions, hosted via Zoom.
“We were leading it like we were news hosts,” said Beliveau. “We have done the hard work because we have been practicing like hosts on the news and been training on that.”
Inching toward center stage in the Special Olympics movement at Smithfield-Selma High School, Yang and Beliveau preach inclusion in all they do.
“Inclusion means to be inclusive of everyone,” said Yang. “Invite everyone to participate in an activity and be respectful of everyone.”
“Special Olympics is a fun part of my life, you know, and I always like doing the Spring Games,” said Beliveau. “Softball is my favorite because I like that one.”
Unified partners Stuckey and Fuentes are operating on the same wavelength, channeling inclusion through Stuckey’s position of 10th grade class president and Fuentes’ energetic charisma. Stuckey and Fuentes will be spirit chairs for the junior class, leading the charge for school spirit.
“I am involved in Special Olympics and am one of the co-presidents of the Unified Club,” said Stuckey. “I like Special Olympics Unified Sports® and Partner Up Power Up because it promotes inclusion and strengthens friendship. Inclusion is important because it builds friendships that are different than what you experience in the classroom, you build those friendships through sports and other activities.”
Much like Yang and Beliveau, Stuckey and Fuentes excel at recruiting fellow classmates in their Unified Club endeavors, a feat that has not gone unnoticed by school leadership.
“We are very excited to see partners working together in many more ways in our school,” said Smithfield-Selma High School Principal David Allen. “It’s magical to say the least. Ms. Jones is an amazing leader and we are happy to extend learning opportunities for all students to learn and respect their fellow students.”
An electric pulse is rippling through the student body of Smithfield-Selma High School. Much like “the wave” at a Friday night football game, students are standing up, one after the other, for their allegiance to inclusion.