VICTOR – Every morning, Victor High School faculty and students start their day by gathering in the Mary Stuart Rogers Performing Arts Center for an assembly they call Ethos (Greek for community/culture). They begin with an inspirational message, recognizing contributors and achievers – providing students with a sense of belonging.
On Wednesday, Ethos included a presentation by junior Jon Wilson and special education student Chris Clare, a senior. These Victor students are setting out to improve the world for those who often cannot speak for themselves. They are guided by special education teacher and Special Olympics coach Martha Jaquith.
Wilson and Clare are leaders in Victor school and in the state of Montana.
They serve on the State Youth Activation Committee, which is a steering committee for Project UNIFY, a national program to unify sports for students with intellectual difficulties by pairing them with non-special education kids under the umbrella of Special Olympics.
During the assembly, Wilson and Clare spoke and showed pictures of the two of them at local, state and national events and videos about how life-damaging the use of the R-word is. The new R-word, they said, is respect.
“End your use of the derogatory word ‘retard’ – it is disrespectful to people,” said Wilson. “Think before you speak.”
Clare gave an inspiring speech about Special Olympics and the R-word.
“Special Olympics has changed my life. I didn’t know what to expect but it is great,” he said. “The R-word is like poison. It hurts someone so much that they can’t really live with themselves. So I hope the R-word can change [to respect] and we can light the tunnel that is so dark right now.”
The student body applauded and cheered him.
Wilson listed reasons why Victor schools are doing so well with this project.
“We are doing great because of what we do – making Chris our Homecoming King this past fall, by the school giving him his varsity letter for participating in Special Olympics and having so many of us participate in Special Olympics in some way – decorating, helping with fundraisers or partnering in sports.”
The state director for Project UNIFY, LeAnn Dolly-Powell, presented Victor schools with an acknowledgement of their success. Banners, T-shirts, stickers and wrist bands were presented to the assembly to congratulate them all on their involvement.
“Victor made it happen,” said Dolly-Powell. “They have the most number of inclusive events. They stepped up their level of socially inclusive programs and showed their engagement as a community and making sure all kids are involved.”
Dolly-Powell explained that the Project UNIFY program has three components: Youth Leadership and Advocacy, Whole School Engagement and Unified Sports.
“Sports are a big catalyst for breaking down barriers,” said Dolly-Powell. “It changes sympathy into friendship.”
Dolly-Powell presented the student body with a large Project UNIFY banner, with smaller banners that hang below, listing their areas of success: Unified Sports, Polar Plunge, Fans in the Stand, and Spread the Word to End the Word.
“The change starts here – you make the world a better place,” she told the assembly.
Wilson summed up the assembly in support of special needs students. “We should be treating them with respect and love,” he said.
Clare agreed. “It is the most important thing in our school.”
The assembly ended with the Victor student body coming forward to sign the banner, pledging to end the use of the negative R-word.
Jaquith said she was proud of Victor schools receiving this acknowledgement of success.
“I think it’s cool, because there are just a couple schools in the state that have achieved this level,” she said. “We have whole school involvement, campus clubs that include our special students, supportive administrators and many unified partners.”
Serving on the State Youth Activation Committee for Project UNIFY for the past year, Wilson and Clare represented Montana at the North American Youth Activation Committee (YAC) in North Carolina for youth leadership training. They spoke at a convention for Business Professionals of America (which raises money for Special Olympics), where the entire audience of 1,300 gave them a standing ovation. They will travel to New Jersey this summer for YAC.
Later on Wednesday, they did the assembly again for the elementary grades who are also participating in the Project UNIFY program.
For more information on Montana Special Olympics, visit: www.somt.org. Project UNIFY has a Facebook page: fb.com/SOMTProjectUNIFY or contact LeAnnDolly-Powell directly email@example.com. Spread the Word to End the Word information can be obtained at www.r-word.org.