Two students and an educator from Rocky River High were part of a North Carolina delegation that attended the Special Olympics Global Unified Youth Exchange in China Dec. 2-9. Ann Lake, an Exceptional Children teacher; Daniel Bartholomy, a Special Olympics athlete; and senior Gavin Rodriquez, a volunteer partner, were among 10 student leaders and four adult mentors who met with their counterparts in China to promote inclusion in schools for people with disabilities.
This was the third Unified exchange between the United States and China since the program began in 2015 and the second involving a Special Olympics North Carolina delegation. The Rocky River participants were the only team members from Charlotte. Lake said they were selected specifically because of the work done at Rocky River toward a positive school environment.
"This school has just always accepted and embraced students with special needs," Lake said.
The Unified exchange is a yearlong commitment that allows representatives from schools such as Rocky River to share their experiences, promote social inclusion in schools and develop ongoing relationships with the Chinese, whose students with disabilities attend only separate-setting schools. The North Carolina group visited different types of schools in Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai, and explained how the U.S. approaches educating students with disabilities.
Rocky River is a Special Olympics Unified Champion School and has a Unify Club open to all students. The club promotes acceptance and respect for all students through sports and education. The club also holds an annual Special Olympics basketball invitational, which features games for a diverse group of ability levels. The JROTC, men's and women's varsity basketball teams, band and athletic boosters are involved in the event, which was held Dec. 19 this year. More than 350 EC students and staff from 10 CMS high schools participated.
"We are inclusive in everything we do," said Principal Ericia Turner. "Our staff is not afraid to do the work and our students step up and help each other. We have the best situation possible."
The group also participated in an activity day that emphasized students' commonalities rather than their differences and highlighted athlete-student partnerships, such as that of Daniel and Gavin. Gavin said the trip strengthened their partnership and that they encountered extraordinary people who are both brilliant and passionate.
"This was my second time traveling abroad and it has braced me for a continuous life of travel," Gavin said. "I had the privilege of seeing Daniel experience an entirely different culture in his first time abroad and I have seen our partnership blossom. Working for Special Olympics North Carolina as a state representative and as a volunteer with Daniel has been an amazing ride."
Gavin said everything – from the food to the weather – was very different from life in America, but he found the Chinese to be welcoming, loving and kind.
"Our hosts treated us as if we were family," he said. "The love was immense and it somehow made me feel at home."
Lake said that despite many cultural differences and language barriers, they found that people have more in common than they have differences.
"That's the basic concept of Unified: All people should be included, as all people have something to contribute," she said.
She said the experience was meaningful on many levels and was a wonderful opportunity for Daniel and Gavin.
"As a leader, one phrase during the trip hit home with me: 'You are never not influencing others,'" she said. "I hope by sharing the inclusive environment in our school, others might see ways to make their schools more inclusive, opening more opportunities for students to grow."
The effort to promote inclusion will continue in early spring when Rocky River plans to hold a Unified partner training day. Lake said the event will be open to participants from Mecklenburg and other counties who want to add Unified activities to their schools.
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