With support from advocacy organizations across the world, including Special Olympics, the Spread the Word: Inclusion campaign addresses the urgent need to diminish exclusion and the discrimination of individuals with intellectual disabilities. The campaign was founded in 2009 as Spread the Word to End the Word, collecting millions of digital and physical pledges to end the R-word. The campaign has since expanded, fighting for inclusion on a much grander scale.
The students at Richard J. Reynolds High School (R.J. Reynolds High School) of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are among many who are outspoken in that fight. An established Special Olympics Unified Champion School®, youth with and without intellectual disabilities join through sports and education to create school communities of acceptance and respect. On Feb. 24, R.J. Reynolds High School students hosted the 2023 Cool Schools Polar Plunge® and Inclusion Rally at Wet’n Wild Emerald Pointe in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Six hundred students, teachers, principals and parents from 16 North Carolina schools plunged in the Cool Schools Polar Plunge and Inclusion Rally, raising nearly $27,000 in support of Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC). Individuals associated with school communities were invited to rally and plunge to promote inclusion in their academic environments through Unified Champion Schools.
The Unified Champion Schools program is aimed at promoting social inclusion through intentionally planned and implemented activities affecting systems-wide change. With sports as the foundation, the three-component model offers a unique combination of effective activities that equip young people with tools and training to create sports, classroom and school climates of acceptance. These are school climates where students with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in, and feel a part of, all activities, opportunities and functions.
SONC athlete Vlad Keaton and Unified partner Cheyenne Holdren met through R.J. Reynolds High School’s Unified Champion Schools club, Diverse Inclusive Demons (D.I.D.). Unified partners are individuals without intellectual disabilities who train and compete alongside Special Olympics athletes. According to Keaton, the club involves students in “doing fun things and school-related activities.”
“During the first club meeting, Vlad and I became partners,” said Holdren. “Both of us were strong in the leadership department, so we teamed up. We’ve been partners ever since sophomore year.”
Through their participation in the club, Holdren and Keaton have volunteered at past Special Olympics Forsyth County Spring Games, have attended local Special Olympics bowling practices and have fundraised for the Cool Schools Polar Plunge. To recognize Unity Day, the signature event of National Bullying Prevention Month in October, Holdren and Vlad shared the school’s Spread the Word banner with fellow students, motivating them to sign and pledge to spread inclusion.
“What inclusion means to me is to include everyone as much as possible, be nice as well.” said Keaton. “It is also important to have fun.”
A recent graduate of R.J. Reynolds High School, Holdren’s involvement with D.I.D. would culminate in her leadership efforts for the 2023 Cool Schools Polar Plunge and Inclusion Rally. In June 2023, Keaton will follow suit, graduating high school and following a career path in technology. The years they spent together in high school; however, would solidify a lifelong dedication to inclusion.
“I think inclusion means making sure everyone is heard at every single moment,” added Holdren. “I think Special Olympics is one place that everybody has a voice where everybody can be heard, regardless of their differences… Everybody has a spot, and everyone is welcome. I live my life by making sure everyone around me is comfortable and enjoying what they’re doing, regardless of our differences.”
Their friendship, built through Unified Champion Schools, continues to stand the test of time and of recent, freezing cold water.