Unified Sports At Orono High School


By Thomas Lecy, Bobby Striggow, Spencer Overturf, Zane Taylor, Karen Pennaz and Jennifer Stankevitz, compiled by Christine Gagnon

Unified Sports join people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. Together they strive for a common goal of having fun while promoting inclusion, respect, and friendship. Unified Sports, started in 2013 by the Special Olympics, was the beginning of a monumental movement that helped to change the world’s perspective on mental disabilities.

Photo by Jodi Munsterman

Thomas Lecy: Unified Club Secretary, Unified Basketball Coach, Unified Partner for multiple sports, mentor, and team member for Team MN for the USA Games.

“The Unified Club has had an immense impact on the Orono community. Thanks to the Unified Club, inclusion and respect are no longer a goal, but rather an expectation in every aspect of life at Orono.The Unified Sports teams have been a gateway for inclusion from gestures as simple as a high five in the hallway, to events as big as the Unified Homecoming Dance.  The Unified movement has been instrumental in breaking down barriers between students with and without intellectual disabilities. One example is when a member of the Orono Unified club, Amelie Wall, was voted 2017 Homecoming Queen.

“The Unified club has shifted mindsets around Orono. One day at Unified Bowling a grandpa of one of the athletes pulled me aside and started talking to me. “This is just the coolest thing to me. I would’ve never imagined anything like this ever happening when I was in school.”  It was interesting how something that he could have never imagined existing came as second nature to all of us at Orono. It is no longer special education and general education students playing sports together, it is simply friends playing sports.”

Bobby Striggow: Unified Club President, Unified Flag Football Coach, Unified Partner for multiple sports, mentor, team member for Team MN for the USA Games

“I think that Unified Sports has impacted the community by showing how much fun it can be once you get to know the athletes. Many people don’t know how to act around some of the athletes and Unified Sports gives them a chance to get to know them and interact with them. For example, I see people saying hi to the athletes in the halls and talking to them in passing time. This rolls over into non-unified athletes following along and interacting with them as well. Other examples, such as the lip sync battle, has helped change the culture by showing off the personalities of the athletes while encouraging others to get involved. As a coach for one of the sports, I have gotten to know many of the athletes very well.”

Spencer Overturf: Chair for Mentoring Committee, Unified Soccer Coach, Unified Partner for multiple sports, mentor

“For me, Unified has changed everything. It has changed the way I interact with people everywhere I go. Unified has changed so many people in our school and community in so many different ways. How we talk and interact with one another and the things people say in public is definitely one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in our community. Kids and teachers of all ages are truly starting to see people for their abilities rather than disabilities, and everyone is starting to realize how powerful words can be. The cool thing about it is that no one is forced to participate in any of these things because everyone wants to be involved and participate in some way. We’ve even had to cut people because we only have limited roster spots. Unified has broken down many barriers at Orono and I’m proud to say that I’ve seen and experienced that firsthand. Speaking not only for myself but probably many others, (Unified Sports) has eliminated the fear of speaking in front of and reaching out to people I’ve never talked to in order to make a difference or help others in need. It really challenges everyone to step out of their comfort zone. As a coach, it gives me the opportunity to introduce a sport that I love to some kids who’ve never had the opportunity to partake in that sport. It’s a way to give back to the community, make new friends, learn, smile, and best of all have some fun! Unified Sports truly brings out the best in all of us.”

Zane Taylor: Chair for Unified Sports Committee, Unified Flag Football, Basketball, and Track Coach, Unified Partner for Bowling and Soccer

“I feel that Unified Sports has brought our community closer together. It has allowed all of the students to unite and end bullying. The attitudes in all students have changed, people have become more accepting to everyone and have changed their perspective. People used to view people with disabilities as the ‘other’ group, but now everyone is looked at equally and want to help out after seeing the inclusive attitudes that we have implemented.”

Karen Pennaz: Early Learning Program Teacher for the Orono School District

“We seriously can’t imagine a better place than Orono for Pierce, our 17-year old son with Down syndrome, mainly because of the quality of his teachers over the years but also because of Orono’s exceptional Special Olympics Unified program, started by Katie Dorn and then taken over by the very capable and very loved teacher Michelle Swenson.

‘As we are out and about around the metro, we hear from so many parents with special needs children that they wished their children had this kind of program at their school. Some even say they want to move to the district just for our Unified program! And some have. Special Olympics is very important to our family. Pierce experiences sport, inclusion, acceptance, dignity, pride, the joy of winning and deep relationships by being involved in Unified through the Orono School District. Most of his best friends (typical peers) have become partners in the program. These are Orono kids who are busy with school and sports but have the character to help kids get some of the same opportunities that they do through athletics.

“I can’t even measure the impact it has had on our family.  Without it, we would be, quite honestly, lost. It means everything to Pierce….and to Steve and I.

“As parents, we’ve made great Orono friends too. That is harder to do with special needs kids. These are fabulous parents with a harder than typical role. There are so many times we have to fight like crazy to get our kids what they deserve. We have to be their voice, their constant advocate. We have to push and defend more so than the average parent. We don’t get breaks. Special Olympics Unified has pulled us all together to commiserate and, sometimes, have a ton of fun.

Our son Pierce will be attending the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this summer. He and his team were chosen to represent Minnesota for basketball. We are beyond excited for this experience. We already know it will be the experience of a lifetime.

“Unified brings a whole new meaning to Orono’s Character Counts culture. To support the program whenever given the opportunity. To encourage your kids to get involved. Thank you to Karen Orcutt, Kristi Flesher, Michelle Swenson and the school principals for backing the program.”

Jennifer Stankevitz: Special Education Teacher at Orono Intermediate and parent of two Unified Sports participants

“This program has literally changed our lives.  It has given my kids a place to belong. Without Unified, there wasn’t a program that would bring all these different kids together because their abilities would limit them. But with Unified, everyone is accepted for who they are and are celebrated for who they are.  They are not defined by what they cannot do.

“Through this program, both my kids have grown so much. They have made so many friends, and they are well looked out for. Jacob walks the halls with confidence that he never had before. There are times when Jacob is so nervous and anxious about starting a new sport and his mom I cannot get him involved. All we have to do is call over one of his best buddies and off he goes! Anna and Jacob are both very proud to be part of something so amazing. As a parent of a child with special needs, it is very hard to trust others in caring for your kids. With Unified, I feel so comfortable to sit by the sidelines and cheer for the team knowing that their friends/teammates are there to help them!

“As a mom, it is so good to know that other people are able to look past what my kids can’t do, and love them for the gifts that they bring to this world.”

Christine Gagnon, Medina resident and Instructional Technology Coach for grades 6-12 at the Orono schools, introduced LocalTies to the concept of Unified Sports that has taken Orono by storm. In January we featured Bobby Striggow and the tremendous impact this young man has made through his involvement in the Unified Sport program.