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Bethel Becomes Special Olympics Unified Champion School

Bethel community members take part in a unified bowling team—promoting inclusion, diversity, and partnerships between students with and without intellectual disabilities.

The Bethel University Inclusive Learning and Development (BUILD) program has experienced high student involvement with Special Olympics Minnesota (SOMN) since the program launched in 2015. This March, that involvement became an official partnership when SOMN declared Bethel a Unified Champion School—a school that promotes Special Olympics’ values and empowers all students to be “change agents” in their community.

“What Bethel University is doing, what Special Olympics is doing—our mindset is that today’s classrooms are tomorrow’s communities,” says Nick Cedergren ’12, schools and youth coordinator for Special Olympics Minnesota. “Through this partnership we are really changing lives. The best part is that it’s only the beginning.”

Cedergren works with Special Olympics Minnesota’s Athletic Leadership Programs (ALPs), which focus on training student athletes to become leaders and advocates of Special Olympics. Multiple BUILD students have undergone training through ALPs, and this summer Bethel will host SOMN’s first “ALPs University,”—an opportunity for Special Olympics athletes to complete three or four ALPs courses while enjoying a weekend on Bethel’s campus.

Involvement with ALPs has helped Bethel to meet one of the three components—inclusive student leadership—required of schools following the Unified Champion School model. Cedegren says Bethel has already incorporated both this and the other two standards—unified sports that include a mix of students with and without disabilities, and campus involvement—at a “very impactful level.”

Royal athletics have played a significant role in helping Bethel meet the latter two requirements. The NCAA Division III established a formal partnership with Special Olympics in 2011, but Bethel’s athletics programs have gone beyond the requirements of that partnership to create increased opportunities for BUILD students and other Special Olympics athletes. On Feb. 13, Bethel teams helped host a unified basketball event for special education students from 12 metro middle and high schools. Both BUILD students and Royal athletes volunteered to help with the event and enjoy some game time. It was Bethel’s second year hosting this event along with a unified kickball event in the fall.

Penny Foore, head softball coach and student athletic advisor committee staff representative, says such events are important because they build partnerships between Bethel athletics, BUILD, and the Special Olympics community. But she also believes that such partnerships should extend outside of isolated events. That’s why a number of Royal athletics teams have granted student management positions to BUILD students. “They really just become part of the team, and a part of our culture,” Foore says.

BUILD student Maggie Erickson ’17 is one example. She served as student manager for Foore’s softball team spring 2016. She has also gained experience working directly with Special Olympics—as an athlete, leader, and intern. With such close ties to Bethel and Special Olympics, she played a key role in coordinating this spring’s unified basketball event. Erickson says the opportunities she’s had with Special Olympics—in addition to her education at Bethel—are equipping her with the confidence and skills she needs to achieve her dreams of working in data entry, as a model, and and as an advocate for people with disabilities.

“Maggie has so many fun friendships, and so many athletic skills and social skills gained from her participation in Special Olympics,” Erickson’s mother Catherine writes. “People with intellectual disabilities have all different kinds of athletic abilities—by watching and competing together, she learned, was mentored, and acted as a mentor. More recently, as unified sports have been developing in schools and communities, there is an opportunity for all athletes to support and encourage each other—whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.”

Bethel has taken a firsthand role in the unified sports movement by launching a unified bowling team this December. But perhaps the greatest show of whole-school involvement was at a 2016 Bethel home football game incorporating a Respect Campaign. Students signed a pledge to “spread the word to end the word” and listened to a representative from SOMN speak on the negative impact of the R word.

“At my high school, there weren’t any unified programs,” says BUILD student Patrick Elmore ’18. “At Bethel, [as a Unified Champion School] it’s different. Growing up I was bullied. Bethel allows me to be who I am.” 

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