United we stand


On Nov. 21, H-F was selected as one of the 132 schools to be a National Banner Unified Champion School for the 2018-19 school year. The exclusive list included elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges/universities all across the country.

When a school is selected as a National Banner Unified Champion School, they demonstrate commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence”, according to Special Olympics.

Special Education teachers David Dore and Katie Nieckula started the Special Olympics program here at H-F 12 years ago.

Before that, the only inclusive activity they had was the Just Like You Club, which is still a club to this day.

“James Hart Junior High had a quality program and a lot of the students were matriculating to H-F…We had this ready group of people who were interested and committed to it, so we started it then,” Dore said.

Along with being chosen as a National Banner Unified Champion School, unified partners Maggie McNellis and Donzel Marshall were selected as 2018 Unified Ambassadors for Special Olympics.

The Special Olympics program consists of half unified partners and half students who are intellectually disabled.

Special Olympics includes three sports: basketball, track and soccer.

McNellis has been involved with Special Olympics practically her whole life due to her brother, Quinn McNellis, who has a down syndrome. She grew up volunteering and participating in activities with other intellectually disabled children.

“He’s the entire reason why I do everything I do with Special Olympics. My whole life has been him and his disability…Now that I’m older, I want to help more people with disabilities,” McNellis said.

Over the last couple of years, the Special Olympics program at H-F has been extremely successful. H-F Viking Unified Basketball won back to back state titles and Unified Soccer even went down to state last November.

Senior Cori Hoesksta manages both the Unified Basketball and Soccer teams alongside McNellis.

“It’s really exciting to see not only the kids improve but also the program as a whole,” Hoekstra said. “It’s rewarding to them because they feel like they have accomplished something.”

Next February, McNellis and Marshall will travel down to San Diego for a National Ambassador meeting with Unified partners all over the country.

“I feel so excited about that. I get to meet new friends and see my old friends,” Marshall said.
Over the last couple of years, H-F has strived towards a more inclusive environment for students with intellectual disabilities.
“It’s more of creating a connection with them and making sure they know I’m their friend first…They know me and they can feel comfortable sitting with me anywhere,” McNellis said.

The impact of the club does not only affect the students during the school day, but after they leave the campus as well.

The Unified partners learn numerous things simply from being involved in Special Olympics.

“I’ve seen increased employment rates and increased health,” Dore said. “I’ve seen just a lot of things that are more important than the basketball court but came because of the basketball.”

Even though it is great for the Special Olympics to be successful, the program is bigger than just that.

“For general education students, sports, clubs, and activities are a big part of their day to day lives. It’s the same for those with disabilities,” Hoekstra said. “So, getting them involved and included within the school is a big deal for them.”