NORMAL — Sam Allen, a Parkside Elementary School fifth-grader, likes being a buddy and mentor to a younger student as part of the Special Olympics Illinois’ Young Athletes program.
“My kid is always fun. He’s always wanting to challenge himself more and more,” the 10-year-old Normal boy said of his young partner.
It’s that kind of attitude at the school in Normal that prompted Special Olympics Illinois to invite Parkside to join it in another kind of training program. This time it’s to teach people to understand how hurtful the word “retard” can be and to convince them not to use it.
Spread the Word to End the Word is designed to persuade 100,000 people this spring to sign a pledge to work against what the organization is calling “the R word.”
Parkside, one of three schools in Illinois to be part of the campaign, kicked off its participation Monday, but activities will move into high gear Feb. 16 through March 18.
“It’s an honor to be chosen,” said Principal Shelly Erickson.
“Anyone in elementary school hears the ‘R word’ from time to time,” she said, but she hopes the increased integration of mainstream and special-needs children over the past two to three years will help reduce that. Children are less inclined to use that and similar words when they personally know children with disabilities, she said.
At Parkside, one-tenth of the school’s 350 students are in special-needs programs, giving the children more visibility than in some schools, Erickson said.
“We’re already on our way to a strong acceptance of children with special needs (in this school),” Erickson said.
The other schools participating are Schaumburg High School and Mount Greenwood School, Chicago. Each is organizing its own way to promote the campaign.
Children in all three schools took a survey of their attitudes toward individuals with disabilities prior to the campaign and will take that survey again afterward to see if attitudes changed.
At Parkside, each of the 23 participating fifth-graders will make a public service announcement one morning over the intercom.
They also will: donate time over their lunch hours to get other students to sign the pledge; make posters featuring the names of people who sign up; and use physical-education class time to make lesson plans for the 2- to 7-year-olds they work with in the Young Athletes program.
Parkside’s campaign will culminate March 19 with an all-school assembly.
Kathy O’Connell, the adapted physical education specialist for the Normal-based Unit 5 school district, works with the Young Athletes program and has been a coach for Special Olympics for 18 years. She is pleased with the Parkside fifth-graders’ involvement in Young Athletes and a related school-sponsored mentoring program called Project Unify.
“It changes attitudes and promotes leadership,” she said.
In all, 23 Parkside fifth-graders are mentoring 13 young athletes at their school. Some have disabilities and some are kindergartners who could benefit from learning basic skills needed in sports.
Fifth-grader Abby Berry, 11, of Normal said she is happy her class helps the younger children in activities such as throwing balls, jumping, catching and walking on balance beams.
“I have a little boy. He’s really cute. He doesn’t talk a lot, but he said my name. He really likes high fives,” she said, adding that he earns several high fives from her for trying so hard.
Pledges can be made online at www.r-word.org/.