Thornwood High School Embraces Special Olympics

Special Olympics has always been a part of Thornwood High School, however in the last two years they have gone above and beyond to support and embrace special needs students in the greater school community.

Thornwood's inclusive program includes cheerleaders and the school mascot
Thornwood’s inclusive program includes cheerleaders and the school mascot

Thornwood High School had just a Special Olympics track team for several years but has added seven new sports in just two years. With more than 80 Special Olympics athletes now competing,  Danielle Jania and her co-workers have taken strides in building a supportive and inclusive experience for not only special needs students but for the entire school community. Jania, Special Education Department Chair at Thornwood High School, submitted a story about the schools Special Olympics experiences in a recent Special Olympics Illinois Share Your Stories contest. Read her story here.

Students, staff, administration and the families in the community come out and support the Special Olympics athletes no matter what the outcome of a game or competition. Thornwood has committed to building a strong, supportive community which promotes equality and an environment free of judgment.

“I never would have thought that Special Olympics could have brought a school community together the way that it has here at Thornwood High School,” said Jania.

Thornwood High School hosted its first Special Olympics basketball game last year. “Our principal, Mr. (Dennis) Willis allowed the entire student body to come and support our athletes. It was amazing! As I still think about this day, it brings tears to my eyes,” said Jania.

In fact, a Thornwood basketball team made it to the State Basketball Tournament and won first place in their high school division.

In addition to their tremendous growth, this year Thornwood High School has started a “T-Bud” program which pairs general education students with a Special Olympics athlete. The students get together to do

Eduardo (Lalo) Vargas and Omar Perez are T-Buds
Eduardo (Lalo) Vargas and Omar Perez are T-Buds

different activities, share lunch and practice their sports, which has created a true sense of community. For the Special Olympics athletes, it gives them the opportunity to socialize, get involved and be a part of something. General education students act more as mentor by guiding and helping their friends which makes them feel good about themselves.

Many students have gone beyond just pairing up and participating in activities together, they have built friendships. Two students Eduardo (Lalo) Vargas and Omar Perez have been involved with the T-Buds for the past two years. Since becoming friends Vargas and Perez have walked in the homecoming parade, eaten lunch together, painted pumpkins together in the fall and attended Special Olympics events.

“Everyone deserves equal opportunity to be a part of something and everybody in our school is equal,” said Special Olympics coach Lisa Zuccollo.

By Calysta Will, Communications Intern