For Laura Williams, inclusion means everything.

She calls herself a community-based Special Education Teacher and the title is fitting. Now in her 20th year teaching, Laura has always had a passion for making sure her students have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. She describes her position as community based because she supports her students in practicing, simulating, and then entering their respective communities.

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When the Pleasant Plains Middle School teacher first moved to the Springfield area ten years ago, there was no community-based education program. She said she was passionate about integrating inclusion into her school’s culture through the Special Olympics Illinois Unified Champion Schools (UCS) initiative.

“To me, inclusion is where everybody and anybody gets to be a part of something and then gets to be an active participant in what everyone is doing,” Laura said.

She started with meetings in her classroom with students with disabilities and those without. She soon got administrative support. Then she was connected to Jennifer Kelso, Senior Director - Unified Initiatives, Special Olympics Illinois. The two collaborated on methods to bring the Unified movement to Pleasant Plains.

That is when Plains United was born.

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“That group has grown so much, and we’ve grown leaders and UCS has helped us do that,” Laura said.  She listed the many opportunities and accomplishments Plains United has brought to Pleasant Plains Middle School—having students on the Youth Activation Committee, meeting state representatives and senators, becoming a National Banner School, being on the ESPN honor roll—all of it, she said would not be possible without the support from UCS.

The change in her students, she added, was remarkable. She described how one student called belonging to the Unified Generation as transformative. "He told me, 'I was a jerk before, and I didn’t appreciate anyone’s differences. Now, I have a best friend that is completely different from me because of this program,’” Laura said.

Laura also credits the athletic portion of the UCS initiative as the key to bringing inclusion to her community. “Sports are a very big thing here,” she said. “We have lots of state trophies.” She described how typically, both her students with and without intellectual disabilities do not always get to be on those state championship teams. “The students on the Unified team,” she said, “vary in all types of skills, and they get to be a part of something. They all love being together.”

Jennifer Kelso said UCS volunteers like Laura are an essential piece in Unified Champion School’s mission. “Whether Laura is coaching three Unified sports, or is leading her community’s classrooms to be more inclusive of all people, she has been a bold champion of the Inclusion Revolution,” Kelso said. “I could not be prouder of the dedication Plains United has committed to being expansive and welcoming for all.”

Laura said she believes every school and every district should have a Unified program. “Our students deserve the chance and opportunities of inclusion,” Laura stated. “This is changing lives."

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Learn more about Special Olympics Illinois Unified Champion Schools here. Find volunteer opportunities in your area here.