The designation recognizes Merrimack for promoting meaningful social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities to create an accepting school environment.
Established at Merrimack in the fall of 2015 by Morgan Sleeman ’18, students in the Young Athletes and Developmental Sports program work in partnership with Special Olympics to offer children with developmental and other disabilities a chance to build physical and social skills.
“Inclusion is the most important aspect of our program,” said Margaret Ford ’21, president of the Young Athletes and Developmental Sports program. “We have worked hard to promote inclusion and are proud of the Unified Champion Schools recognition.”
The program, developed by Special Olympics, promotes health and social development for children with a range of challenges, from autism spectrum disorder to Down syndrome, and includes their siblings in the activities.
Before COVID-19, Special Olympics young athletes typically came on Saturdays to Merrimack’s campus to participate in the program’s fun physical activities. This spring the program pivoted online through Zoom meetings to meet social distancing requirements.
Ford organized the virtual program to pivot into the virtual world and developed activities for the children and their families to do at home while connected with Merrimack students online.
Merrimack students hosted the program virtually on Saturday mornings and a few additional times during the week. Ford said parents reported that their kids loved the activities and seeing familiar Merrimack faces, as well as socializing with folks from outside the house each week.
The program included 50 Merrimack student volunteers and 30 families last year and has been one of the fastest growing student groups on campus. It is run by an executive board, including President Margaret Ford ’21, Vice President Alison Radzik ’21, Treasurer Kelly Fenerty ’21, Secretary Brooke Leestma ’22, Fundraising Chair Kelly Crotty ’21 and Social Media Chair Hayley Yule ’22.