Souderton Recognized as a National Banner Unified Champion School

Souderton Area High School was the first school in Pennsylvania to be recognized as a National Banner Unified Champion School by the Special Olympics’ International headquarters. Photos provided courtesy of Donna Longacre.
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By Mary Jane Souder

FRANCONIA TWP – Souderton Area High School held a pep rally to top all pep rallies on Thursday. The occasion wasn’t in preparation for an upcoming big game but rather to celebrate an extraordinary honor - the school’s selection as a National Banner Unified Champion School by the Special Olympics’ International headquarters. Souderton is the first school in Pennsylvania and one of only four schools in the nation to receive this prestigious distinction.

“At the core, Souderton Area High School is a school of inclusivity, and it’s an accepting culture of all different kinds of people and different talents and traits,” said athletic director Dennis Stanton, who along with Supervisor of Special Education Megan Zweiback spearheaded the effort to bring Unified Sports to Souderton. “That’s why this was an easy platform to start an initiative like Unified Sports because the culture was already built into the school.”

Souderton initiated the program two years ago. Forty athletes turned out to compete on the track and field team. Last year, that number grew to 47 – the largest team in the state - and 20 athletes joined the newly-formed bocce team. In 2017, the track and field team won the state championship.

“It was fun because we handle this like we handle any other athletic team,” Stanton said. “We hire the coaches, interview the coaches, train the coaches and expect our student-athletes to have a good experience, and we expect them to carry themselves the right way.

“I truly believe the best service is two-way service. Our partner athletes and our special needs athletes are both receiving unbelievable benefits from this and having a great experience.”

Junior Megan Bealer – a member of Souderton’s varsity basketball team – certainly can attest to that.

“My freshman year was the year Unified was brought to our school,” Bealer said. “Our athletic director, Mr. Stanton, came up to me and my friend Megan (Walbrandt), and said, ‘What do you think about it?’

At first, we didn’t know. I didn’t get myself really involved until I joined Unified. The joy and the excitement that the team brought was just amazing. Seeing the reaction of them winning and building relationships with my classmates is just amazing. I love it, I absolutely love it. Being involved and making the joy come out of my classmates – I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Unified teammate Kevin Lezynski, crowned homecoming king this fall, was a playmate of Bealer’s in elementary school.

“We didn’t really know each other, but we would play at recess,” she said. “I’ve definitely built a great relationship with Kevin, and I love it.”

Bealer’s is just one of many stories about a program that is life changing.

Honored at Thursday’s pep rally were members of the Unified Sports teams, which are comprised of typical and special students who compete side by side in interscholastic competition. Some of their names were familiar for their accomplishments in the athletic arena but many were not. All were showered with the kind of love and support few athletes of any sport ever receive.

“Webster’s dictionary defines inclusion as ‘to embrace and to involve as part of the whole,’ and that’s what you do collectively in your practices and in your competition, and all of that reflects your character and your character as a school,” said Dr. David Volkman, executive deputy secretary of the PA Department of Education. “You revealed your character today and you do it every day. By cheering for one another and working with one another, what you have really done is not only developed character for today but for a lifetime.  Thank you for setting a good example for all of us to follow.”

Television production teacher Richard Curtis – who boasts experience co-hosting Live With Kelly and Good Day Philadelphia – served as emcee and kept the gym rocking.

The partner and special needs athletes were introduced and entered the gym in pairs to rousing ovations.

The list included Bealer, Lezynski, Walbrandt, Steven Resnick, Jon Hager, Hannah Lynch, Connor Kulathum, Stephen Luchansky, Karly Ditlow, Adam Booz, Jake Zelner, Megan O’Donnell, Ciara Alderfer, Candace Alderfer, Amanda Bosico, Brianna Neely, Riley McGowan, Phillip Lyle, Emily Duddy, Sali Barber, Mitch Finkenbeiner, Sean Dewees, Tori Dowd, Susan Randolph, Hannah Kramer, Sophie Vassallo, Curran O’Donnell, Vanessa Souder, Katie Berdy, Aleia Kramer, Kavi Ramchandani and Isaiah Crede Devine.

Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Bryan Fagan is the Unified Track and Field coach.

“I have all of our students, and I see them working together in class, and for me to provide more opportunities outside of the classroom where they’re interacting with each other, building friendships – that’s the key,” Fagan said. “If we can have students who are graduating and leaving Souderton and they are that seed of change for the rest of society – for me, that’s what this is about, seeing those students leave and making a difference. It’s that ripple effect.

“I tell our partner athletes all the time – you guys don’t realize, but you are provided with opportunities that some of your classmates never had. These opportunities are things you don’t think of on a Friday night when you’re going out to dinner with friends. Being that spark, being that center point where students are able to come together, build those friendships and see those friendships blossom outside of the school is also what it’s all about for me.”

Scott Otterbein, volunteer manager of Montgomery County Special Olympics, coached Sean Dewees, one of Souderton’s Unified athletes, on his Special Olympics track team for six years. His daughter Lauren – also in attendance – has competed in basketball, soccer, track and field and long distance walking with Special Olympics.

“You realize that all of our athletes have something to contribute, so it switches from thinking of someone who has needs that we have to take care of – that they really have something to share with us,” said Otterbein. “(Unified) exposes at a very young age athletes who have never met anyone with a disability because they have separate classes – now they’re combined. These are future volunteers when they graduate.”

In attendance at Thursday’s pep rally were local and state dignitaries as well as representatives of Special Olympics.

“Today it’s not about celebrating the accomplishments of one athlete, it’s not about celebrating the accomplishments of your Unified track team – although that’s been pretty amazing. It’s not about the bocce team. Today is a celebration and recognition of each and every one of you,” said Matt Aaron, president and CEO of Special Olympics of Pennsylvania. “It’s about each and every person that’s in the gym today and what you have built and what you’ve done in creating a culture here.

“Dr. (Frank) Gallagher said earlier today - we want what you have created here to be like the flu virus and infect every other school in the state of Pennsylvania.”

The morning was capped with words from Dr. Timothy Shriver, the Chairman of Special Olympics International and the son of the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

“This is a school district of people who have joined together behind one idea,” Shriver said. “Each person has a gift, and the community is only at its best when every gift is celebrated.

“I want you to recognize that right now. This is your moment, and it’s a really special moment because all around you – if you listen to the news, everyone will tell you your country is divided. People will tell you your state is divided, people will tell you your community is divided, and it’s divided in all kinds of ways. They’ll tell you that you’re growing up in a time of risk and tension and fear and anxiety, but in your moment, you’re telling a completely different story about this school, about this community, about this state and about this nation. You’re offering your country a different vision, and for that, I want to thank you.

“You have created a space here that is dedicated to the premise that every gift matters. It’s not about disability but different ability. Let’s welcome a world of different abilities, let’s celebrate it with inclusion.”

For the Souderton community, it was a day to celebrate.

“Reflecting on this day, this is my proudest moment in my 24-year career in public education,” Superintendent Dr. Frank Gallagher said. “I can’t say enough about our school community, our high school students, in fact all of our students. All nine schools are represented today.

“To our high school athletes, to all of our students, to our Unified students, thank you for what you’ve done for our whole community. This is not just a high school thing. Your impact has gone far and wide, not just in Souderton Area School District but across the Commonwealth.”

“Students, what’s most important about this is you’re being recognized for nothing more than being you, for being the caring and supportive young adults you are,” Dr. Sam Varano, SAHS Principal, said. “That’s a huge tribute to you and a huge tribute to the staff members who work with you who are the best teachers and paraprofessionals around in that they role model for you on a daily basis what support and caring and community looks like. The lesson learned from today is this – good guys win.”