BEMIDJI -- Special Olympics athletes, team leaders, Unified Sports partners, family members and supporters from around the country joined forces online on Feb. 10 and 11, as part of Special Olympics’ 19th annual “Capitol Hill Day.” More than 500 delegates from 48 states took part in the event -- including some voices from Bemidji.

Bemidji High School students, senior Lily Krona and junior Will Duncan, were two of five students from the state of Minnesota selected to meet with lawmakers this week on behalf of the Special Olympics Unified Schools program for virtual “Capitol Hill Day.”

BHS unified physical education teacher Jaqueline Stoffel said Bemidji was chosen to represent the state as an example of a successful Special Olympics Unified Schools program. This is the first time Bemidji has been invited to represent the program, and had COVID-19 not been a factor, the students would have traveled to Washington D.C. to advocate for the program in person.

“We’ve had a lot of success in our program and I think we’ve made a lot of strides in the last couple of years, so they (the special Olympics staff) thought we would make good candidates to represent the state of Minnesota and to show and express how thankful we are to be able to have this program and how much we want to keep this program within our school,” she said.

“We’re advocating for continued funding for these programs.”

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Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools programming exists in more than 7,800 schools across the United States, with a goal of being in over 10,000 schools by 2024. Bemidji High School is one of 125 schools in the state that offers it. The program is based on three pillars: unified sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement. Within each pillar, the goal is to promote inclusion and create authentic peer relationships for all students with and without disabilities.

“We like it to be as student-driven as possible,” Stoffel said. “Special Olympics has set up a really awesome model.”

The two students who advocated for continued funding and support to legislators last week, did so out of a strong love for the program.

Will Duncan, a junior at BHS, is an athlete in the Unified Schools Program. Duncan participates in unified basketball and was a member of Bemidji’s Unified Basketball team that played in the first-ever Unified State Tournament in 2020. Submitted photo.
Will Duncan, a junior at BHS, is an athlete in the Unified Schools Program. Duncan participates in unified basketball and was a member of Bemidji’s Unified Basketball team that played in the first-ever Unified State Tournament in 2020. Submitted photo.

Duncan, a junior at BHS, is an athlete in the Unified Schools Program. “He’s been amazing,” Stoffel said of Duncan. “All the things that he’s taken on have been very, very impressive.” Duncan participates in unified basketball and was a member of Bemidji’s Unified Basketball team that played in the first-ever Unified State Tournament in 2020. Stoffel said Duncan has also been active in track and field, aquatics and bowling. Duncan also sits on the Special Olympics student leadership board for the state of Minnesota.

Krona, a senior at Bemidji High School, is a unified partner and has been involved in the Unified Schools Program for four years.

Lily Krona, a senior at Bemidji High School, is a unified partner and has been involved in the Unified Schools Program for four years. Submitted photo.
Lily Krona, a senior at Bemidji High School, is a unified partner and has been involved in the Unified Schools Program for four years. Submitted photo.

“She is just a very kind person and a very inclusive person,” Stoffel said of Krona. “She started by volunteering -- she’s taken our unified P.E. course, she’s volunteered for the dance and the different sports and now she’s going to be a part of Capitol Hill Day.”

Special Olympics athletes led more than 300 virtual meetings over the course of Feb. 10 and 11 with members of Congress in both the House and Senate, inviting elected officials to partner with them to support inclusive education and health initiatives for people with intellectual disabilities.

“Special Olympics athletes, serving as self-advocates, will educate lawmakers and their staff about the stigma faced by people with disabilities, and how high-impact and cost-effective Special Olympics programming in sports, health, and education can reduce discrimination,” a release for the Capitol Hill Day Event said. “Special Olympics Minnesota offers children and adults with intellectual disabilities year-round sports training and competition. Through Special Olympics’ athletic, health and leadership programs, people with intellectual disabilities transform themselves, their communities and the world.”

In addition to federal U.S. government funding, Special Olympics also receives funds from private foundations, corporations, and individuals. Those interested in expressing their support for Special Olympics funding in Minnesota are asked to contact their members of congress.