Southwest High School students Robert Nordgaard and Olivia Youngdahl laughed as they blew bubbles.
Nearby, Ellie Pfeifer and Diego Pinto-Zelaya danced to a song by the band One Direction, while Oliver Herfindal and Luke Youngdahl tried their hand at hula-hooping. Meanwhile, other students kicked around a soccer ball, threw a Frisbee or simply hung out on the playground.
These everyday interactions came during the year-end celebration for Southwest’s new unified club, which brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities for weekly activities and social time. The celebration took place May 20 at Beard’s Plaisance in Linden Hills.
Club leaders said the group has given both groups of students a chance to meaningfully interact in a school building where they can often be isolated from each other.
“There’s so many people who don’t interact with everyone,” Olivia Youngdahl said. “Unified gives us that opportunity.”
Southwest started its unified club last spring. This school year, the club held meetings on Thursdays during “advisory” period and also led schoolwide campaigns on issues like inclusivity, respect and “person-first” language. In addition, club members participated in a Polar Plunge and a dance marathon, held bake sales and attended a Special Olympics Minnesota leadership summit.
The club has around 100 students, according to Heidi Carsello, a social worker who leads the group. It includes students with autism spectrum disorders and cognitive and developmental disabilities.
Senior Morgan Ellingson, a member of the club’s leadership team, said mainstream students didn’t interact much with their special-needs peers before the club started. Now, she said, “you see so many handshakes and hellos in the hallways.”
“A lot of times, people get really intimidated and they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to act around some people with disabilities,'” she said. “But seeing examples of like, ‘Oh this is totally cool and they’re responsive to this,’ it also sets that example for the rest of the school.”
Junior Gabe VanDeWalker said the club’s benefits extend both to students with and without intellectual disabilities. Other leaders said the club has given their peers with disabilities a space to make an impact and all students the opportunity to befriend one another.
“It’s really cool to meet all these people that I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise,” senior Lucy Kegley said.
Carsello said the club helps mainstream students see how much they share in common with their intellectually disabled peers. She said one of her favorite parts of the year-end celebration was seeing students of all abilities interacting like typical teenagers.
“They were just engaging with each other in such a positive, organic way like you would with some of your best friends,” she said.
Southwest is one of about 100 unified “champion” schools in Minnesota, according to Nick Cedergren of Special Olympics Minnesota, who oversees that organization’s schools program. Components of a “champion” school include inclusive student leadership, unified sports and whole-school engagement, he said.
Cedergren said his organization’s goal is to create a “unified generation” with students who expect inclusion in their everyday lives.
Carsello said she hopes to bring the unified approach into the broader Southwest school community. She said plans are in the works for a unified gym class and a more formalized mentoring program.
Her student leaders appeared confident their club will continue to grow.
“Ever since we’ve started, it’s just been getting bigger,” VanDeWalker said. “I think it’s going to keep doing that.”