Posted: February 26, 2019
“This class has become so much more than just a course for me. It really became a passion of mine. It has changed my outlook on life.” This reflection came from Maggie Jardine, a grade 12 student from Miramichi Valley High School, while being interview by CBC radio about her recent experience taking a class that focused on planning, organizing, fundraising and volunteering for the New Brunswick Special Olympics Winter Games held in Miramichi from February 21st to 24th.
This grade 12 class, and their teacher Ann O’Neil-MacDonnell, took the curriculum outcomes from an elective course entitled “Goals, Growth, and Grit” and enhanced them to provide a more enriching course that had real world implications. What started off as a simple high school class quickly evolved. It saw the students commit to countless hours of volunteer time, create bonds of friendship between themselves and our local Special Olympians, and ultimately led to one of the most well attended and celebrated Special Olympics Winter Games in the history of New Brunswick.
As alluded to in Maggie Jardine’s opening quote, it was not long before this class changed from being just another high school course and into a passion. Quickly, the confines of the classroom walls and timetables were torn down and saw students signing up to be part of the local organizing committee for the Winter Games. This was a commitment that entailed long evenings brainstorming, problem solving, and organizing the games. Other students began volunteering on Sunday evenings to mark score and help coach our local special Olympic bowlers. Some students took on the challenge of rounding up sponsorships from local businesses while others spent countless hours arranging photoshoots and editing promotional posters of each of our 40 local athletes. Each student took on a major task that they were passionate about and excelled at using their interests and skills to make the 2019 Speical Olympics Winter Games a memorable one for the 400+ athletes and coaches.
The efforts of the students was recognized by the parents, caregivers, and coaches of our local Special Olympians. On their class blog Abby and Gillian described one such instance when they arrived to volunteer at the annual Special Olympics Christmas dinner, “When we first got there, a parent of one of the Olympians was at the door as we were coming in, and when we told her who we were she broke into tears. She told us that this was the first year that they had this many volunteers coming in to help out with the Olympics, and hearing that was very rewarding.”
The students quickly developed friendships with our local athletes while attending events like the Christmas Dinner and volunteering at Special Olympics bowling, swimming and floor hockey. Their quest for a good grade in the course rapidly gave way to an authentic altruism that is hard to explain but was easily seen through several interactions throughout the six months. The students not only completed the tasks given to them by Special Olympics NB or the local organizing committee but often came up with their own ideas to promote inclusion in Miramichi and to celebrate our local Special Olympians. They organized additional fundraising activities to ensure all the needs of athletes from throughout NB would be met during their stay and they planned social outings for our athletes such as warm up floor hockey games and being guests of honour at the Miramichi Timberwolves hockey game.
Another highlight of the course, and an example where the students took the initiative to surpass what was expected of them, was their nomination of Special Olympian Ashlyn Adams to the Miramichi Sports Wall of Fame. Ashlyn Adams is one of the most decorated Special Olympians in the history of New Brunswick winning two sliver medals at the World Winter Games in Alaska, a bronze at the World Games in Nagano, Japan, and a silver at the World Summer Games in Shanghai, China. When the students caught wind of Ashlyn’s accomplishment they set out to interview his former coaches from across Canada in order to put together a compelling case to make Ashlyn the first Special Olympian to be recognized on the Miramichi Sports Wall of Fame. Their persuasive writing skills shone through and Ashlyn’s nomination was accepted. On February 15th, at the gala event for the Miramichi Sports Wall of Fame, Mrs. O’Neil MacDonnell’s class once again went above and beyond and the students booked an entire table in order to show their support to Ashlyn and to be there to cheer him on when his name was announced.
This is just one example where inclusion was celebrated and promoted in Miramichi throughout this 6 month course. Other ripple effects were felt throughout our local schools who showed up in droves during the games, posters in hand, to cheer on athletes from throughout New Brunswick. Special Olympics coach and former teacher, Rick Hayward, offered one anecdoate where, through the friendships made with Mrs. O’Neill MacDonnell’s class, the confidence of our local athletes soared as they became local celebrities:
“In all the years I have known Jeremy, I have never seen him filled with the confidence I witness in him now. Earlier this week he was invited to instruct a class at Dr. Losier Middle School on how to play floor hockey with the equipment and rules that will be used in the upcoming Winter Games. I, coincidentally, ran into him at Walmart just before he was going to be heading to his former school as a guest speaker. As I was walking by an aisle with my shopping cart, I heard someone call, ‘Hey, Rick!” It was Jeremy. “Today’s the day!” he exclaimed. “I am going back to Dr. Losier Middle School this afternoon as a teacher, not a student! I have my good clothes ready to put on as soon as I get home. I can hardly wait to get back to Losier and show the students what I have learned and what I can do!” Jeremy’s passion for taking on the leadership role in teaching a class at his alma mater exemplifies the passion, that has been extended far beyond the classroom of Ann and her students to each of our athletes.” This is just one of the many examples of the trickle down effect the class from MVHS has had on enhancing the profile of our Special Olympians in our community and bringing inclusion to a new level in our schools.
It was not just the parents, caregivers or coaches of the athletes that noticed the impact the students had on these games. Most importantly, the athletes themselves constantly remarked on the involvement of the students and their impact on their lives. Michael Clark, a Special Olympics floor hockey player frequently gave “shoutouts” to the class on his youtube channel. In one such post entitled “Friendship” Michael says, “When I first walked into the class to tell you what I do with special Olympics I was kind of scared but I really warmed up to you guys. You guys are the best! I love you all. I could never ask for better friends.” Al Sutherland, another Special Olympic floor hockey player commented, “This is the first time anyone has cared so much about Special Olympics. Sometimes people pretend to care but these kids really care.”
The 2019 Special Olympics Winter Games kicked off the opening ceremonies with a packed house at James M. Hill on Thursday, February 21st as each team was lead into the theatre by a student from the class. On Friday and Saturday morning it was hard to find a place to sit at each of the four events as Miramichiers and students from ASDN filled the venues to cheer on athletes from throughout NB. During the games the students from MV could be found refereeing games, greeting teams at hotels, running errands for the organizing committee, keeping score, and promoting the events on social media. Josh Astle, President of Special Olympics New Brunswick noted, “We have said it once, but we will say it again! The students of MVHS have been amazing working on various project in preparation for the 2019 Winter Games.”
On Sunday, February 24th, after serving breakfast to a hall full of 400+ athletes and coaches, the MVHS students were once again amongst the last to leave. As they departed, the students lined up to thank the organizing committee for allowing them to be a part of this exceptional event and all of them exclaimed how it pained them to think that Special Olympics Winter Games were now over. However, while the games officially ended, the skills developed by these students will serve them well throughout their life; the friendships they have now made with Special Olympians throughout New Brunswick will not be forgotten by the Olympians; and their impact will extend beyond any classroom timetable and will surpass any grade that can possibly be given.
The passion exuded by this class has already started to leave a legacy in Miramichi that has not only seen more volunteers lining up to support our Special Olympians but has also fostered an atmosphere of inclusion that has trickled throughout our community and schools. It brought Miramichi together to celebrate the empathy, compassion, sportsmanship and perseverance exhibited by our Special Olympians that all of us should to strive to replicate.
In closing off her interview on CBC news Maggie Jardine perhaps best summed up this class, “It has opened my own heart and made my face, heart and soul smile."
To hear more about this story visit the CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/miramichi-special-olympics-winter-games-high-school-students-1.5024193
Photo courtesy of Alana Carson.