Partners for Student Success Careers  /  Staff Directory  /  Staff Login  /  Frontline
Special School District of St. Louis County

Special Olympics Program,
Partnerships Benefit Students

The SSD Special Olympics program has provided opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in sports for more than 27 years.

While the longevity of the program is certainly worth noting, it’s the collaboration with area high school students who plan and host the athletic events at their schools that makes SSD’s program unique.

“Seeing high school kids get involved, especially in the early 1990s, when a lot of students hadn’t been exposed to kids with disabilities, was pretty amazing,” said Mike VanHecke, a former SSD physical education teacher who is now retired.

In fact, VanHecke said some of the student volunteers went on to become special education teachers because of their interactions with kids during Special Olympic events.

“They figured that’s what they wanted to do,” said VanHecke. “They really took to those students. It opened their eyes and made them feel good and made our students feel good.”

Students have a great time at a variety of SSD Special Olympics events throughout the year including soccer, bocce ball, bowling, basketball, softball, and track and field. In addition, at every event, each athlete is matched with a host-school buddy for the day.

“At the Special Olympics track and field event, the buddies don’t judge anyone. They accept you for who you are,” said Mickeal Phillips, a junior at SSD’s Neuwoehner High School. “Good players from other schools make it fun. I like seeing others have success.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics in 1968, and in 1971, Missouri Special Olympics was incorporated as a charitable organization. SSD began its Special Olympics program in 1990. In 1998, the name of the state organization officially changed to Special Olympics Missouri.

“We started with a charter from the state to begin our program,” said Jackie Rahm, coordinator of SSD’s Special Olympics program from 1997 to 2010. “When I inherited the program, there were nine events that were hosted at various high schools.”

During Rahm’s time with the District, the program expanded to include partnering with several local private and parochial schools in addition to SSD’s partner districts. “That really opened up another set of schools that were willing to receive our athletes,” said Rahm.

By the 2010-2011 school year, the number of SSD Special Olympics events had grown to 27.  

Rahm said her favorite part of the program was working with various high schools.

“The day of the event was always amazing,” said Rahm. “Seeing the lengths they went to in order to put on a wonderful event was awesome. Then seeing the SSD teachers and students leaving with great big smiles on their faces was very special.”

VanHecke said he considers Special Olympics to be one of the best programs SSD has incorporated into its curriculum. “It really benefits our students and the students at the other high schools. It’s collaboration at its best,” said VanHecke.

In the past seven years, the program has grown significantly. The number of participating students has more than doubled. Currently 37 SSD Special Olympics events are held at partner schools and area locations.

Unified Sports, which joins individuals with and without disabilities on the same team, also has experienced growth. Today, SSD Special Olympics offers a unified division in every sport. Approximately 900 athletes participated on unified teams during the 2016-2017 school year.

Kerrie Townsend, the current SSD Special Olympics facilitator, said it is very rewarding to see the relationship and acceptance that general education students develop and gain through working with and competing with the athletes.

“I often tell people that I have the best job in the District. It is wonderful to see the sense of accomplishment, increased self-esteem and self-confidence that the athletes gain through athletic competitions,” said Townsend. “The smile on each of their faces as they receive their ribbons and medals is very rewarding.”

Published January 2018

students at special olympics competition Students participated in a Special Olympics bocce tournament hosted by Lutheran South High School.

Contact SSD  /  Accessibility  /  RFPs  /  Public Notices  /  Site Map   /  E-news

12110 Clayton Rd, Town & Country, MO 63131  /  314.989.8100  /  314.989.8552 – 711 (Missouri Relay)

Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
SSD logo
Twitter Facebook
Translate this site:
Complete a survey about today's website visit