Orono Unified Mentors

Fisher eiss, sam perry, THomas Lecy, holly harrison, and Danny Striggow are high school students changing the game for their peers with intellectual disabilities


By: usa games correspondent, tynan gable

The opportunity to “change the game” is quite a powerful thing. While it comes naturally for some to do so, anyone can make a life-changing impact in their community and, more specifically, in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

The students of the Orono School District in Minnesota are encouraged to practice acts of kindness that promote equality and inclusion. These lessons cultivate a community full of people with game-changing attitudes.

Extra worthy of noting is the district’s recent creation of their Unified Mentors program. High school students elect to utilize their free or study hall periods to visit their “mentees” at the elementary and middle schools; fortunately for them, the Orono School District is all conveniently located on one street.

The job of these mentors, formally referred to as the Orono Unified Mentors (OUM), is to engage both socially and academically with students who have disabilities. The work the OUM are doing has well earned them, as a whole group, the honor of being this week’s nominees for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games #ImAGameChanger campaign.

 Fisher Eiss

Fisher Eiss

 Sam Perry

Sam Perry

 Thomas Lecy

Thomas Lecy

Jennifer Stankevitz is a special education teacher and parent of two students, Jacob and Anna, with disabilities in the Orono district. She has close connections with these mentors in more ways than one and is overwhelmed by the immense positive impact of the mentorship program.

“I get to see how amazing it is and what a difference it makes for my kiddos with special needs to make connections with their peers and how their relationship helps them grow more than any relationship I could build with them. They make a connection with someone their own age and they have a friend looking out for them the whole school day,” says Jennifer.

The OUM program is fairly new and has grown immensely in the past year. It is an extension of the Unified Sports program that was established due to the local Special Olympics in Minnesota. Some of the mentors are also sports partners for one or many children participating in Special Olympics sports in Orono.

During the school day, the mentors take on a variety of roles. Some meet their mentees once or twice per week, while others perform more of a Teaching Assistant role and attend classes all five days of the week.

In the classroom, mentors may be asked to read with their mentees, work through assignments, or play with them at recess. Their tasks are determined by the needs of each individual mentee and also depend on the time of day at which the mentors are able to come from high school to be in the elementary and middle school classrooms. Jennifer explained that the mentors are often able to encourage their mentees to perform at a higher level than even she, as a teacher and parent, is able.

“They look up to these big kids and do stuff with them that they wouldn’t do for me. Some of them are really self-conscious to read in front of me, so when the mentors come in they are more than happy and willing to show off all that they can do. It’s cool to be able to use our mentors in our teacher role.”

While each mentor has their own way of encouraging the children they work with to open up, one thing they all have in common is their attitude of inclusion. Jennifer specifically recognized five mentors who she thinks do this in exceptional ways and with whom she has the pleasure of working closely with in her classroom and personal life.

 Holly Harrison

Holly Harrison

 Front: Daniel Walker, Nick Overturf, Grace Limesand, Spencer Overturf, Holly Harrison, Leah Goehring  Back: Danny Striggow, Thomas Lecy, Sam Perry, Thomas Walker, Fisher Eiss

Front: Daniel Walker, Nick Overturf, Grace Limesand, Spencer Overturf, Holly Harrison, Leah Goehring

Back: Danny Striggow, Thomas Lecy, Sam Perry, Thomas Walker, Fisher Eiss

 Danny Striggow

Danny Striggow

"Fischer Eiss mentors one of my most challenging students at recess, and coaches him by example and with words on how to play appropriately.

Sam Perry helps two students with reading and amazes me with how comfortable and willing the kids are around him.

Thomas Lecy loves to joke around and is amazing at making relationships in general, and all the kids in my classroom are drawn to him from the moment he walks in the room.

Holly Harrison is the newest addition to my classroom and has a quietness about her that somehow persuades kids to work extra hard.

Danny Striggow is my daughter’s (Anna) mentor, and he transforms her from being too anxious to communicate with her peers to being open and confident in front of a crowd. He includes her and encourages her in every way that he can, making her feel comfortable and have confidence in herself in ways that I’ve never been able to."

Jennifer emphasized that this short list is not at all exhaustive. In fact, she explained that the list of mentors has grown so much recently that she isn’t even aware just how many students are involved. Nevertheless, she sees and feels the impact of what they do on a daily basis.

The community of Orono, Minnesota has changed for the better due to the hard work of the OUM in both the Special Olympics arena and in the classroom. It has established an atmosphere of looking out for one another in the schools and the mentors’ efforts continue to promote an attitude of inclusion that is spreading quickly.

“I get chills and tears in my eyes thinking about it. This program catches those kids that maybe wouldn’t have friends otherwise.” Through tears, Jennifer continued to say that the mentors “change the lives of the children they work with because they give them somewhere to belong. It’s like they suddenly have this place to call their own and they feel valued for who they are; even though they have really challenging things that get in the way.”

Whether or not a program like this exists in your community, a lesson can be learned from this group of young Game Changers. The potential to change lives through simple acts of inclusion and kindness is limitless.