VERMILLION, S.D. – The University of South Dakota is one of 36 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools – and one of four based in higher education – recognized by ESPN and Special Olympics for its efforts to provide inclusive sports and activities for students with and without disabilities.
USD received a national banner Monday for demonstrating a commitment of inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence. Those standards, as set by a national panel of leaders from Special Olympics and the education community, include unified sports, inclusive youth leadership, whole-school engagement and sustainability.
USD emerged with the recognition from a group of more than 7,500 schools across the country currently engaged with the program.
“I am honored to be a part of Special Olympics South Dakota and to have had the opportunity to work with USD, the students and the faculty there to be able to see this come to something bigger than I could have imagined,” said Julie Briggs, vice president for outreach at Special Olympics South Dakota. “For South Dakota to be on that map with so many other amazing schools and large universities is truly an honor, and it speaks to who we are and what we are in South Dakota – we include everyone and we embrace differences.”
Special Olympics South Dakota started its Unified Champion School program in 2017 and currently boasts 56 schools across the state. USD was in the initial group and the first college to come on board thanks in large part to Kelsey Koupal, an undergraduate student at the time, who helped form the club.
“Kelsey came to me with this wonderful idea that she planned to get the program rolling at USD, and she was just phenomenal,” said Briggs. “I remember she asked me to speak to a group of students who were interested in being a part of the club, and there were 200 students there and that was exciting. I knew with her ambition, the program was going to be successful and that has been proven.
“There’s been leaders now after her and Andy Holmes is one of them. They’ve had intramural basketball and all sorts of unified sports days. They’ve done celebrations of holidays, and all of that has encompassed not only the students at USD, but also those with intellectual disabilities in our communities.”
It’s the work of those who have come before and after Holmes with the club that he takes the most appreciation from.
“It’s awesome to see how the club has progressed so far,” said Holmes, a native of Brandon, South Dakota, who is now studying at the USD medical school. “Anyone will tell you that once they actually volunteer in anything related to Special Olympics you just fall in love with it.
“We’ve had events where we’ve invited a large group of athletes from the surrounding area and Sioux Falls to come to the USD Wellness Center and we’ve played dodgeball, basketball, bocce ball, bean bags, kickball and things like that, and it’s awesome to see how it’s progressed. It’s a fantastic thing to see the way that the Vermillion community, and USD faculty and staff, have helped us grow.”