Thornton Academy recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School

Thornton Academy student Brooke Helgesen holds the microphone while Sami Woodcock reads some prepared comments at Friday's assembly. PHOTO BY LIZ GOTTHELF
Liz Gotthelf, Publisher

Thornton Academy in Saco has been recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, and is one of five schools in Maine to hold this distinction.

To qualify to be a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, a school must meet 10 national standards of excellence. To meet these standards, schools must offer Special Olympic Unified Sports where students with and without disabilities train and compete as teammates. They also must have inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement activities that promote social inclusion.


The achievement was celebrated on Friday with an assembly at the school’s Linnell Gymnasium. The event began with students cheering as unified athletes entered the gymnasium through an archway while “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor played. Students and faculty gave speeches and the assembly ended with unified athletes doing “The Cha-Cha Slide” dance.

Ian Frank, president of Special Olympics Maine described the Thornton as a “beacon of unity.”

“Thornton Academy has become a shining example of a place where every student is not just welcomed, but truly valued and empowered to shine,” he said


Thornton Academy Middle School special education teacher, and Thornton alum Wyatt LeBlanc said when he was a junior at Thornton he became involved in the then new Unified Sports program. When he first heard of the program, he thought it would look good on his resume, but after participating in Unified Sports he quickly learned that the experience was so much more than a resume builder.

He said it made him realize how fortunate he was to be afforded all the opportunities he had in life, and he enjoyed being able to help give students with disabilities opportunities they would otherwise not be afforded.

“I just can’t stress how great this program is and how happy I am to see what it’s become today,” said LeBlanc.

Student Brooke Helgesen, president of Best Buddies, a club builds one-to-one friendships between people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities, has also been active with the unified basketball and bocce teams.

She said her friends with disabilities have taught her resilience, compassion, and dedication, and how to be a better person both on and off the court. Brooke said she has been fortunate to be able to spend time with happy, funny, honest and kind people.

“Some of the students we have class with here at TA, play sports with, and have lunch with, may have different abilities, but we are all teenagers going to the same school, and we have the same interests,” she said.

Brooke’s Best Buddy, Sami Woodcock, said she likes dancing with the friends she’s made through Unified Sports, and being part of the program has made her more independent.

Kristin Smythe, a former special education director at Thornton was a founding faculty member of the Unified Sports program. She said the first basketball game was “unforgettable.” She said the day after the game, she was walking down the hallway with one of the Unified athletes, and they were approached by a varsity basketball player who knew the Unified athlete by name, jersey number, and stats from the night before.

“So our athletes are getting recognized by their peers,” she said. “How cool is that?”

She said the games were something she and others looked forward to, and were “a little bit of sunshine in our daily lives.”

Thornton Academy Unified Sports athletes pose for a photo at Friday's assembly. PHOTO BY LIZ GOTTHELF

A Unified Club, which is now Best Buddies, was created so that students would continue to have opportunities to socialize with their friends once the sports season ended.

The school currently has Unified basketball and bocce, and Director of Student Support Heidi Butler said another sport will be added next year. The school offers unified classes in physical education, art and everyday engineering, and next year will also offer a unified robotics class.

Schools must reapply for the a Special Olympics Unified Champion School distinction every four years.

Saco Bay News Publisher Liz Gotthelf can be reached at [email protected].

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