Featured photo: At 2023 Capitol Hill Day, Thomas and Rylynn spoke in the rotunda and engaged with families and lawmakers to promote Unified programming.
Thomas Blair and Rylynn Zannon, seniors at Stillwater Area High School and members of the Special Olympics Minnesota Student Board of Directors, see inclusion in action every day, thanks to the presence of Unified programming at their school.
Stillwater calls their Unified club “TRUST Club”—True Respect Unified Students Together. TRUST Club meets once a week for about an hour and engages students with and without disabilities in various activities from puzzles to pickup basketball games. “The whole point is to get everyone involved and stir the pot a little bit,” Thomas said. “To make our school more inclusive.”
When Thomas and Rylynn were freshmen at Stillwater, Unified was just getting started. “Four years later, we’ve seen how it’s grown,” Rylynn says. “We see students with and without disabilities sitting together with their friends in the cafeteria and that shows meaningful inclusion.”
Inclusion extends beyond the cafeteria. “Real bonds have formed between students of all abilities,” Thomas says, “Before Unified, there was ignorance about the special education students at our school. Now, you don’t even see it as special education students vs. general education students, it’s just students.”
One of Thomas and Rylynn’s favorite Unified experiences was Unified State High School Basketball Tournament in February 2022, where the Stillwater Unified team placed first in Division A.
Stillwater students filled nearly an entire section of seats at the Target Center and cheered on not only their home team but other Unified teams from across the state. There were signs and pom poms all over the place, and the energy from the Stillwater Area High School students was palpable.
“Students with disabilities were segregated in the past. Having our student body come out and support our Unified team was huge,” says Thomas.
Rylynn hopes to see the TRUST Club extend into the community and partner with other schools to grow the Inclusion Revolution. “I want to see more people trying to learn about inclusion,” she says. Thomas agrees, “Unified isn’t about having winners or losers, it’s about having a diverse and loving community that can come together as one. We just want everyone to be working towards one common goal.”
Thomas and Rylynn will be graduating in just a few months, but their Unified journeys are far from over. Rylynn plans to stay involved with Special Olympics Minnesota throughout her life and hopes to pursue a career in early childhood education. “Unified has been a gamechanger,” she says. “And it’s great knowing that I was a part of it.”
“Special Olympics Minnesota has changed my life in a very positive way,” Tom says, “I know that this is my calling. I’m surrounded by people who truly care and are motivated and energized to do good. I’ve found what I want to do in life through this.” Tom plans to study developmental psychiatry and hopes to work with individuals with disabilities.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, but then this found me,” Thomas said. “I found a way to turn something I am truly enthusiastic about into a career.”
Not only has Unified programming helped Thomas and Rylynn discover their career goals, but it has been a source of joy in their time at Stillwater Area High School. When asked how they would define their experience, they agreed on three words: fun, community and friendship.
Thomas and Rylynn are champions of inclusion. They have made a difference in Stillwater Area High School and will continue to make Minnesota a more inclusive place. We are so thankful for their Unified leadership!
Interested in making your school a more inclusive place? Email [email protected] to learn more.