In two years, East Ridge High School (ERHS) moved from an idea and a few people to school-wide events that embrace everyone, thanks to the ERHS Unified Club. “Our club has really helped eliminate the separation between special education and general education students,” says seniorGrace Millington, a founder of Unified Club. “The barrier is gone.”
Unified Club is affiliated with Special Olympics, an organization with global initiatives to “create a world of inclusion.” Every individual no matter the ability or disability is accepted and welcome. Founded on values like respect, partnership and integrity, Special Olympics provides opportunities for participation to empower individuals and communities. Sports allow students to celebrate their abilities instead of focusing on their disabilities; they also promote all community members to join together to make a better, healthier, and joy-filled place.
Special Olympic Unified Champion Schools like East Ridge combine education and sports as avenues for promoting inclusion. They provide opportunities for leadership, awareness and sports for students with and without intellectual disabilities. Unified Club encourages general education and special education students to be a part of their leadership. Together they plan, promote, and make decisions for the entire school. “The goal is to break down barriers and to form friendships,” says Nick Cedergren, schools and youth coordinator, Special Olympics Minnesota.
Halston Greenlay, one of the ERHS Unified Club founding members and also Special Olympics Minnesota Student Board of Directors member, says she has “so many friends on the spectrum or in special education classes who deserve to be seen more than they are.” They’re underrepresented and she felt bringing Unified Club to East Ridge would give them a voice.
ERHS Unified Club organizes and sponsors numerous events. This past February, 550 brave participants jumped in Carver Lake for the Polar Plunge, raising over $95,000 for Special Olympics. More than 50 participants from East Ridge competed in the Basketball Invitational at Bethel University. While other events are more informal like the ice cream social and kickball game this past May, they all focus on strengthening students with special needs and building community.
What’s important is seeing students all over the school get involved. One of the AP Art classes put together an interactive piece of art to illustrate everybody’s differences. Called “project unity,” the collaborative art was designed to bring people together.
ERHS hosted its first-ever Unified Prom, held in the gym with full lighting to address some of the considerations that are often forgotten with special education students. Everyone enjoyed getting dressed up, dancing, singing karaoke and even decorating cupcakes for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
ERHS has been named a Unified Champion School because of the effort and success of students and staff alike. Greenlay says, “Everything is still kinda new to us. Think of all the changes we can make!”