In the Coventry High School gymnasium on Friday morning, the excitement was palpable.

The gym was awash in Oaker colors, as community members poured in for the unveiling of a banner recognizing the high school as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, a national distinction given to schools that demonstrate a commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence.  

“There’s a great quote that goes like this: ‘some people want things to happen; some people wish things to happen; here at Coventry High School, people make things happen,’” Dennis DeJesus, CEO of Special Olympics Rhode Island, said Friday before a crowd that included Gov. Dan McKee, Supt. Craig Levis, town council and school committee members, school administrators, local first responders and hundreds of current and former students. 

“This is a school community that celebrates acceptance, inclusion and respect every day of the school year,” DeJesus continued. “It is ingrained in the school culture, and you feel it as soon as you step on the campus. Students, faculty, staff, administration: thank you for making Coventry High School a national champion school.”

One of only five schools from across the country selected by Hasbro to be honored during a special ceremony, Coventry High School actually received the distinction in 2020 but had to postpone celebrating because of the pandemic.

“Inclusion and acceptance” are some of Hasbro’s core values, Kevin Colman, director of global philanthropy and social impact at Hasbro, said from the podium. Based in Rhode Island, the global company supports unified champion schools worldwide, Colman said.

“Out of all of those schools all around the world, you are one of the best,” he said over the roar of thundersticks.  

The bleachers were packed Friday with students, every one of them donning a red Coventry Unified Champion School T-shirt. They held handmade signs that spelled out words like “accepting” and “respectful” and “kind.”

As the celebration got underway, unified athletes — current, future and from years past — entered the gym in a procession between members of the high school’s dance, cheer and unified cheer teams, their red and silver pom-poms waving wildly as applause erupted from the stands.

Unified sports, which pairs students with intellectual disabilities and those without in an effort to promote inclusion, started in Coventry with a unified basketball team more than a decade ago and has since grown into a district-wide movement.

“It’s incredible for me to see how far this program has truly come,” said Jaya Joyce, a sophomore at Fordham University and 2020 graduate of Coventry High School. 

Joyce, alongside a few friends and language teacher Christine Hoskins, co-founded Coventry High School’s unified program several years ago. The group had been brainstorming ways to make the school a more inclusive place, Joyce recalled Friday, when they came up with the idea for a club that would encourage inclusion and acceptance among all students. 

“This little club that we tried to start has truly transformed into this massive movement,” Joyce said, “not only here at Coventry High School, but really throughout the entire town and throughout the entire state of Rhode Island. 

Unified social hours were organized, a unified volleyball team was established. Today, in addition to its unified basketball, volleyball and cheer teams, Coventry High School boasts all kinds of unified activities — the unified chorus sang the national anthem at the start of Friday’s celebration. 

The school also participates each year in the Unified Champion Schools Plunge, this year raising more than $14,000 for Coventry’s unified program and Special Olympics RI.

“We really are just so excited to see what’s to come,” added Emily Gates, also a member of the high school’s class of 2020. “We’re so proud of everyone [for] keeping inclusion in the school community.”

For Cole Campbell, a 2017 graduate of Coventry High School who as a child underwent multiple brain surgeries, his time on the unified basketball team helped build his confidence. 

“It was the friends and relationships that really helped me become more sociable,” he said from the podium Friday. “It really helped me become more of a man.”

Campbell enjoyed his experience playing unified basketball, he said, and after graduating was thrilled to learn of the opportunities that Special Olympics offers to adult athletes. Since then, Campbell has played basketball, volleyball and flag football, and this year will compete in the Special Olympics USA Games in track and field.

When he learned that he’d been accepted to participate in the national games, Campbell “didn’t know whether to cry tears of joy or just totally rock out,” he said. 

“I’m thankful for the connections that I’ve made, Special Olympics has really changed my life,” he continued. “I’m the most busiest I’ve ever been.”

Unified sports have also impacted Hanna Mattias, a member of the unified basketball team, in a number of positive ways, her dad Ronald Mattias said. 

“This program… has changed her to a fun-loving kid who walks down the hall with confidence,” Mattias said of his daughter. “She’s not afraid to approach other students now.”

Seniors B.J. Begones and Kameron Hargis also took the podium Friday to share their own story about the bond they’ve built as unified partners.  

“Being a part of this movement, I have learned that unified programs here at Coventry High School bring joy, a sense of community and, most importantly, friendships that will last all of us a lifetime,” Begones said, standing beside Hargis. 

McKee was one of several speakers to address the school community during the celebration. After taking a moment to layer a Coventry Unified Champion School tee over the shirt that he arrived in, the governor spoke of the importance of providing opportunities for all. 

“It’s very special to be here to recognize the leadership at Coventry High School,” McKee added. “It’s an example, not just for the state of Rhode Island, but for the entire country.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin and Miss America 2022 Emma Broyles each also congratulated the Oakers in pre-recorded video messages.

“You’ve shown that, year after year, Coventry High School is committed to disability inclusion across the board in sports, leadership and educational opportunities,” Langevin said. “You’re one of only five Unified Champion Schools that’s receiving this banner with a national presentation ceremony sponsored by Hasbro.”

The achievement is “a tremendous honor,” the congressman added, both for Coventry and for the entire state. 

“There are so many benefits that come along with prioritizing inclusion in your programs,” he continued. “Not only does it make every student feel accepted, but it also creates the opportunity for everyone to learn from each other’s diverse experiences and perspectives.”

After taking a moment to laud Coventry High School Principal Brooke Macomber for her unwavering support of the unified program, DeJesus spoke of the significance of the banner that now hangs proudly in the gym of Coventry High School.

“This banner that we’re about to unveil symbolizes the commitment to acceptance, dignity, honor, equality, inclusion and respect,” DeJesus said, just before the banner was revealed to thunderous applause. “It is not given out to any school. A school has to earn it, and Coventry High School — Oaker Nation — you have earned it.”

kgravelle@ricentral.com

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