By: USA Games Correspondent, Mike Gastineau
Will Larson’s senior year of high school had just been turned sideways.
The Orono, Minnesota resident had been playing hockey on a Saturday morning when his skate gave out and he slid into the dasher board, breaking his leg in two places in the process.
There’s no doubt that he had plenty on his mind as he was loaded into an ambulance for a trip to the hospital where he would undergo surgery on his leg later that day. But at the top of his suddenly updated to-do list was making sure someone got ahold of Sam Geffre.
Sam is a 10th grader at Orono High School and he and Larson had become friends through the school’s Unified sports program. Geffre had been quite reluctant to get involved in the program at first, but with Larson’s encouragement, he gradually got interested. He began playing on the school’s flag football team and he and Will were partners on the school’s Unified bowling team. Larson also encouraged Sam to get involved in other activities and one of those was committing to attending the homecoming dance. Sam agreed and Will planned on giving him a ride to the dance.
The dance was scheduled for the evening of the day when Will broke his leg. On his way to the hospital after his accident, he called the advisor for the Unified program and informed him that someone else was going to have to pick up Sam and make sure he had a good time at the dance.
“Who does that?” asks Leslie O’Meara, a teacher at Orono High School who nominated Larson for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games #ImAGameChanger campaign.
After his surgery (and the dance) was over, Larson checked in on his friend to make sure he’d had a good time.
“Will felt awful that he couldn't be at the dinner and dance with Sam,” said O’Meara. “Even though he missed out on his senior year homecoming dance, his concern was if Sam had a good time.”
Larson’s participation in the Orono High School Unified program is all-in. In addition to flag football and bowling, he plays on the Unified basketball team. And O’Meara says his participation runs even deeper than that.
“Will is also the President of the Student Board of Directors for Special Olympics Minnesota, and he is currently working on a DECA project with two other classmates to help bring the Unified club and sports into more schools around the state. He is extremely passionate about Unified. He knows how much it has changed his life and he wants to bring that opportunity to other students.”
O’Meara says Geffre’s participation in Unified sports has changed him for the better. He’s opened up more, made many new friends, and has more confidence. She’s seen the impact Unified has had on Sam and other students and knows first-hand how good it can be.
“You see it in the halls and classrooms. There’s not a divide. Students interact because of it and it’s more a part of the character of our school than it ever has been.”
The program is good. But it’s only as good as the people who are in it, the game changers like Will Larson.
“Sam calls Will to hang out over the weekend or just to chat about the day. Will sees Sam as one of his best friends, and I don't think he truly realizes what he has done for Sam. He has given Sam a connection to this school. He has made Sam feel valued.”