Special, inclusive and fun.
Special Olympian Claire Carmody and her unified partner Fern Stewart will attend the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, Youth Leadership Experience, June 5-12, in Orlando, Florida.
Carmody graduated from Hamilton High School in 2021 and Stewart is a junior at HHS this year.
Carmody said she is excited to go to Disney World in Florida and has been far from home, but never without her parents.
“I’ll have Fern, I’ll be fine,” she said. “I cannot wait. Hopefully, I will have fun. It’s okay if celebrities are there or not but I hope there will be a surprise. I’m excited and nervous. It will be eight days and I’ll be busy but hopefully, I’ll get a break or two.”
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Stewart said she hadn’t seen a schedule yet.
“I don’t know what we’re getting into, but I think it will be a fun adventure,” Stewart said. “I love hanging out with Claire, she is such a sweetheart. I’m excited to grow alongside her. She is older than me and we’ll learn together and grow as a team. I’m excited to bring that back to our community.”
Carmody described Special Olympics as providing an opportunity for everyone.
“It makes everyone proud and happy to work out to make sure they are healthy,” Carmody said. “They don’t have to worry about their bodies being ill, they can work out.”
Stewart said the Special Olympics means choosing to include everyone.
“Special Olympics to me is about witnessing the joy of my teammates when they succeed and hearing the cheers ... watching my school change for the better as we include all students ... and holding the hands of my teammates to encourage them and help them share their stories,” she said. “It’s about changing lives and I have the blessing of helping to spur the world and choose to include.”
Jeannette Gray, representing Special Olympics Montana (SOMT), said Carmody and Stewart applied for the opportunity and went through the selection process which included an online interview.
“They were selected from applicants statewide because of their dedication and experience in promoting inclusive practices at Hamilton High School,” Gray said.
Carmody and Stewart are part of the Hamilton High School SPURS Group, a Unified Club that brings together students with and without disabilities to promote inclusion in the school. Carmody, Stewart and the SPURS Group have worked on inclusion rallies, Special Olympics, fundraisers, pep assemblies, unified sports, Capitol Hill days, athlete leadership training and unified track.
Carmody defined the SPURS Club as a group, “where any disabled, or anybody really, can have fun and do their own thing.”
“The club does fun activities like tie-dying, watching movies, karaoke, a crazy puzzle game, a scavenger hunt,” she said. “We’ve had as many people as 50 come but it depends on the activity.”
HHS is a unified champion school that must meet the criteria of providing sports (unified track and golf), participating in the Special Olympics games and giving leadership training for people of all abilities. For focused leadership training, HHS SPURS has organized pep rallies and national inclusion week.
“Last year we had that assembly and we talked about not using the R-word (retarded),” Carmody said. “I told them that it is not okay to use that word because it is insulting. I told them about my disability, which I hadn’t done before and I got emotional because I wanted everyone to know.”
Stewart said she is passionate about getting involved with SPURS.
“It really hit the spot,” she said. “It wasn’t just about being in a club or working with people, but it was about the relationships I gained. It gives the ability to make connections and push those relationships to make a better community. It is a blast.”
The Special Olympics conference in June is designed to help youngsters become future leaders of the Special Olympics movement. Unified pairs will be volunteering to serve where needed, engaging in educational and interactive experiences and job shadowing key volunteers at the USA Games. The goal is for athletes and their unified partners to connect more deeply to the Special Olympics movement as committed volunteers, teammates and friends.
Gray will attend the national conference with Carmody and Stewart.
“They go with our delegation of athletes from all around the state,” Gray said. “We have a send-off party and travel together.”
Carmody and Stewart will spend a week or 10 days with Team Montana, but they will have different responsibilities from the athletes who are competing in sports.
“These two girls are participating in a Youth Leadership Experience,” Gray said. “They are a unified pair, someone with and someone without an intellectual disability. In Florida, they will go through the Youth Leadership Experience in a very scheduled out week.”
Part of their experience will include a storytelling day where they share their story and listen to others’ stories. They will also do a job shadow and will be the greeters for people entering the USA Games gates.
“They will be engaging the crowd,” Gray said. “They have had to go through an extensive preparation experience. I will go along with them but I’m just facilitating it. Special Olympics North America is who they have been doing the preparation with, all on Zoom.”
Stewart said the Youth Leadership Experience training has been intense.
“It has been a great experience,” she said. “It is not just the training you normally go through; I’m growing as a person as I go through this.”
The online seminars have covered different disabilities, how they can affect others and how different dynamics work.
“It helps people get along and that’s where inclusion comes in,” Stewart said. “It is not just preparation, but I’ve been making more relations. I’ve started a group in the valley where I’m getting kids my age to think about how they can be leaders at their own schools.”
She will conduct a leadership seminar for other schools in the Bitterroot Valley to start a SPURS group in their school.
“It gives them leadership and volunteer opportunities,” she said. “I’ll pass on what I’ve learned the past few years. SPURS at HHS is only about four years old and it is the first of its kind in the valley. I’m working with students truly interested in spreading inclusion in their school, how to work with students with disabilities and without, how to work together better, and stopping the use of the word ‘retard’ is a big push.”
According to the SOMT press release, during the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games “more than 5,500 athletes and coaches from all 50 states and the Caribbean will travel to Florida to unite in one of the country’s most cherished sporting events. The USA Games is hosted once every four years and showcases 20 Olympic-style team and individual sports and 30 events throughout the week including forums and VIP receptions.”
Special Olympics Montana (SOMT) is a state-wide nonprofit organization that provides year-round sports training, athletic competition, and health-related programming for individuals with intellectual disabilities. For more information visit www.somt.org or www.2022usagames.org.