In just two years of launching its Unified program to continue its mission to create an inclusive school environment for all students, Voorhees High School has been declared an official Special Olympics National Unified Champion School. Surrounded by students, staff members, Unified athletes and parents, representatives from Special Olympics New Jersey formally recognized Voorhees as a Unified Champion School on October 16, 2018 with a banner dedication ceremony.
This national recognition, of which only 221 schools nationwide have received to date, means that Voorhees High School’s Unified program has met the ten standards of excellence set forth by Special Olympics International. The ten standards of excellence focus on four key areas: Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership, Whole School Engagement and sustainability for the program (click here to view the ten standards). According to a letter from Special Olympics International Chairman, Dr. Timothy Schriver, “The Voorhees High School staff and students have demonstrated their commitment to inclusion. Your school community has shown impressive determination and is helping us move towards our collective goal of creating a truly ‘Unified Generation’ of young people who embrace differences and lead social change.”
The Unified initiative at Voorhees High School began during the 2016-2017 school year with a grant from the Special Olympics of New Jersey to launch Unified Sports. Students with and without disabilities play together on one team and against other high schools with Unified Sports teams. Voorhees started with a Unified basketball team, and has since added track & field and soccer teams. In fact, Unified athletic events are some of the most highly attended events by students. In addition to Unified Sports, Voorhees started a Unified Club through which students with and without disabilities held various awareness campaigns during the year, such as Light It Up Blue for Autism, Spread the Word to End the Word, World Down Syndrome Day and Epilepsy Awareness Day. Within the first few months of its Unified initiative, Voorhees saw an immediate change in the overall school culture. A perfect example of this change is when the graduating Class of 2017 chose to give the traditional monetary “senior gift” to the Unified initiative with one simple request: continue the Unified movement at Voorhees High School to ensure that all students are included in the school community.
“One of the things that I am most proud of at Voorhees is the acceptance that students have for one another. The Unified Program has taken this to a level beyond our imagination. I am in awe of the genuine friendships that have been developed. An added benefit that we truly did not expect is that a significant number of our students are going to college and majoring in a field to support individuals with special needs. Just the thought of it overwhelms me with pride,” said Ron Peterson, Principal of Voorhees High School.
In the initiative’s second year, students embraced the “Choose to Include” motto and helped coin the hashtag #actuallyIcan that ran with most of the Unified Club’s fundraisers. Students involved in the Unified program took over running the school store and coordinated a community bowling night, Unified field day, a team for Relay for Life, and end of year banquet for students, parents and community members. Also in the second year, Voorhees added a new course to its curriculum called Unified Leadership, which had 25 students enroll. For 2018-2019, over 90 students registered for this new course.
Plans to expand the Unified program continue in the 2018-2019 school year. Unified youth leaders will be reaching out to the elementary and middle schools in the regional district to spread the “Choose to Include” message. A coffee shop recently opened in the newly renovated media center, staffed by Unified students. The addition of a Unified Physical Education course is also in motion. Also at the beginning of this school year, the Unified program donated a new Vikings mascot costume to the school as a reminder that regardless of our differences, we are all Voorhees Vikings.
The Unified faculty coordinators, Kaitlyn Collins, Carolyn Baumann, Melissa Haines, Sarah Cummins, Jennifer Komoroski, as well as Assistant Principal, Kelly Anne Kieffer, know that for all the larger initiatives and programs that have happened, it is the small things that make the school truly unified. “When parents and grandparents thank us after a sporting event, when Unified leaders come back from college to take a student to a movie, when typical students invite students with disabilities to their lunch table on their own accord, and when students with disabilities demonstrate social independence at large high school events- this is when you know you are truly a Unified school. The Voorhees Unified Generation of students is unmatched and should be congratulated for their leadership,” said Kieffer.