On Friday, October 6th school leaders from around the state enthusiastically joined Special Olympics MA at Bentley University for the Unified Champion Schools Conference. Coaches, educators, and administrators took part in a daylong conference to learn more about inclusive programs around the state, as well as ways in which Special Olympics MA will support programs through coaching, fundraising, and educating.
With more than 300 Unified Champion schools across Massachusetts, this first-ever conference focused on bringing 175 leaders together to provide information on UCS at every level.
The day was kicked off by the Vice President of Schools and Community Development, Patti Doherty, and President & CEO of Special Olympics MA, Mary Beth McMahon. Both were followed by Special Olympics MA athlete, James Day Kieth, who spoke about the opportunities that he has experienced through Special Olympics, including starring in a major motion picture, “Champions,” alongside Woody Harrelson.
McMahon noted the importance of the conference. “This day is very important to us as Special Olympics Massachusetts,” she said. “Just sitting through the first sessions the questions that people are asking and what they want to do to strategize is really a great networking opportunity to connect school districts to school districts, so that they can actually realize that they have other people out in the state doing it.”
Throughout the day educators split up into breakout sessions to hear more from fellow leaders on specific needs and to answer questions they might have. Speakers included Jen Walsh of Milford High School, Jose Colon of Mattahunt Elementary School, and Kelly Gilbert of North Reading High School.
Angela Allaire of Fairhaven High School noted why the conference is so important for their district and school. “We are excited to be a Unified Champion School, and we are very blessed by everything Special Olympics has done for us and all the resources they have given us. So, we figured coming to the conference would give us another resource, and again the opportunity to interact with other schools which is something that we don’t typically have.”
Sitting in breakout sessions, one could feel the enthusiasm from every educator seeking to improve their programs by talking with individuals in the rooms.
Connecting programs that have been implemented in communities for years to other programs just starting out was crucial to the success of the conference. For example, Christine Ahern from Uxbridge High School learned a lot from longtime UCS educators. “I’m very new to the champion schools with Unified PE. Last year was my first year, and I didn’t really have a lot of training or information, but I ran with it, and loved it,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite classes ever and I just want to keep building and improving by getting more ideas that’s why I’m here.”
Youth Activation Council members, Risha of Marlborough High School, Amalia of Auburn High School, and Paige of Algonquin Regional High School, spoke during the Breakout Sessions about their experiences being a part of Special Olympics as students. They help to bring together their schools and Special Olympics to foster an inclusive environment in their communities. Paige spoke about her time with Special Olympics MA, “I have been involved in the Special Olympics since the start of high school. This is my third year. My brother is on the autism spectrum,” she explained. "Just coming into high school, I was looking for a club to make a lot of friends and have a good time. Best Buddies and Unified Sports just really spoke to me, and it’s been very fun since.”
When asked what to share with educators about why this work is so important Paige added that, “treating everybody the same and being inclusive because it is so important, and it really makes an impact in the schools as well as in sports and out of schools. It just makes everybody feel more part of one thing and a big community.”