East Grand Forks Schools celebrates accession into Special Olympics' 'unified schools' program

Nov. 30—EAST GRAND FORKS — East Grand Forks Public Schools celebrated its accession into Special Olympics' "unified champion schools" program, by hosting a pep rally on Wednesday at East Grand Forks Senior High School.

Unified schools, which has a membership of approximately 6,500 schools nationwide according to its website, brings together both disabled and non-disabled students in the spirit of inclusion. The program sponsors athletic competition, extracurricular activities, and encourages students to become leaders and promoters of inclusion at their schools.

Shannon Murray, schools programs manager for Special Olympics Minnesota, said participation in the program has a positive impact on student morale.

"What we find is that schools who participate in unified feel better," said Murray. "It's important to feel welcome at school."

Murray was joined at the ceremony by William Duncan and Austin Fellman — Minnesota's youth ambassadors for Special OIympics USA. Duncan and Fellman are two of 30 youth ambassadors nationwide, and work with their fellow ambassadors to develop strategies to grow unified schools' mission in their respective regions.

Duncan, a senior at Bemidji High School, spoke of how unified schools' athletic programs benefited him.

"Before unified, school was tough, and I didn't have many friends," said Duncan. "Once I joined unified, I made a lot of friends. I started playing unified sports, and am now in pretty much every sport my school offers. My unified partner and I won a gold medal in the top division of our state bocce competition last month."

Fellman, a senior at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, said although people often associate Special Olympics with athletic competition, membership in unified schools offers many other resources.

"In addition to sports and competitions, Special Olympics does a lot of things including health screenings and leadership training to name a few," said Fellman. "Unified schools pair students with and without disabilities to create school communities that foster respect and dignity for all."

Murray said East Grand Forks Schools fulfilled its requirements to become an accredited unified school by establishing activities in each of unified schools' three pillars — unified sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

"The students and faculty have gone above and beyond what is required to become a unified champion school," said Murray. "Typically, a new member will have established activities in one of the three pillars. The event today demonstrated a commitment to whole school engagement, and the school has also started a unified bowling league."

East Grand Forks High School will also host events celebrating its status as a unified champion school on Thursday. The events, which include ladder golf, corn hole and an arts and craft section, will take place in the school's new gymnasium.