At the heart of every person’s passion for Special Olympics is a story: a reason and a driving force for why one is so invested in inclusion. This story may be of a sibling, a child, a family member, a friend, or even a complete stranger. For many teachers, that inspiring force comes from the students.
This is certainly true for five teachers from Ponaganset High School in Rhode Island: Jen Paolantonio, Beth Keeling, Kyle Fraatz, Jen Nardelli, and Jenna Farina. This past school year, Ponaganset High School has been in the Special Olympics spotlight. “From our experience as a Unified Champion School, we embraced the concept of inclusion as our foundation,” says Ponaganset teacher Jen Paolantonio. “We make every effort to include everyone, all students, all faculty and staff as well as our community members to be active participants in our events.” Not only did Ponaganset receive a Unified Champion Schools National Recognition banner for meeting the 10 standards of excellence of inclusion, but the high school was also the site of a few Special Olympics video projects. The school is featured in the 50th Anniversary video on GenerationUnified.org, as well as a few projects yet to be released. Teachers and students alike were highlighted and interviewed about their efforts for inclusion and the climate of compassion that Ponaganset has.
One such student is Kate DeCotis. Kate, a rising senior at PHS, is currently being featured on the Spotlight page of GenerationUnified.org. Due to her passion for inclusion at school, along with her talent as a photographer, Kate was invited to attend the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Celebration in Chicago from July 16th-21st to act as an official photographer. As well as being joined by her best friend Emily Colasante,
Kate’s teachers knew they had to support her as well. “We were so excited for Kate when she was invited to Chicago,” said Beth Keeling, one of Kate’s teachers at Ponaganset. “We certainly couldn’t let her go without a cheering squad, so we packed our bags and joined her.”
While in Chicago, Kate, Emily, and their five teachers had the opportunity to experience the 50th Anniversary Unified Cup, the Global Day of Inclusion, and the star-studded anniversary concert at the end of the week. Between acts at the concert, many Special Olympics videos were shown, including a video portrait about Kate. In just a few minutes, the whole venue was introduced to Kate’s story and her message of inspiration for all those with intellectual disabilities. As Kate, her family, and her teachers got up to leave the concert, the crowd recognized Kate from the video and gave her a standing ovation! Among famous musicians and celebrities, a Special Olympics athlete from Rhode Island was being recognized on the same scale. Her teachers remarked, “Hearing the outpouring of love and support from a stadium of strangers screaming her name and high-fiving her was surreal.”
As surreal as this experience was for the teachers at Ponaganset, this recognition of someone with an intellectual disability and inclusive attitude is the norm at Ponaganset High School. The school is embedded with a culture of acceptance and respect. All of this, according to the teachers, is because of their implementation of a Special Olympics Unified Program.
“What began as a fun sports program for our students has evolved into a school-wide culture of empathy and compassion. As a teacher you can only hope that what you teach in the classroom expands beyond those four walls, and we get to see that at Ponaganset High School.”
Ponaganset High School is truly a model example of a Unified Champion School. Not only does the school support their students with intellectual disabilities, but the faculty empowers those students to be leaders—just like Kate. Upon being asked to share advice for other special educators looking to start a Unified Program at their school, the teachers at Ponaganset shared this: “Go for it! Don’t be afraid, reach out to everyone, and invite them to be a part of the amazing programs. Once your school community is invested in the Special Olympics Unified program, very quickly you will see the school culture improve and doors of inclusion open wide for all of your students.”
Thank you Ponaganset High School for being a champion of everything Special Olympics stands for.