Unified Sports Meets Higher Education
I’m Marlo Eckert, the Chair of the Young Professionals Council at Special Olympics Oregon and a long time volunteer, most recently as a Unified Partner on Portland State University’s Unified Sports team. I want to share with you why inclusion, opportunity and pride is so important to me and our society.
In fall of 2014 I joined PSU’s Unified Sports team where I met some of the best people who were also looking to better their lives through education and take home some medals through sport. Like all Unified Sports teams throughout Special Olympics, our team was comprised of a proportionate number of athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and Unified partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities. I immediately felt welcomed on our team, as I too was looking for a place to fit in at my new college. The Athletes largely attended a local college transition program and graduated from that program a few years later while the Unified Partners attended PSU. In what may have been their last opportunity to pursue higher education after high school, three of our teammates Will Larson, Lucy Balthazaar & Sawyer Viola were notified that they had been selected for the Think College Inclusion Oregon program at Portland State’s College of Education, the first of its kind in the state of Oregon.
This was truly exciting for everyone on the team as Will, Lucy and Sawyer were thrilled to be a part of the first cohort and that our Vikings would officially be “real” Vikings. I can still recall their faces when sharing the news with us. The enthusiasm they had to attend PSU is beyond words and the pride of being a Viking is still here today.
Throughout the last four years, these three awesome individuals had the opportunity for a true college experience on PSU’s campus due to the Career and Community Studies program. The program has three focus areas that guides the students through their 4-year certificate: social inclusion, academics and establishing a career path. Like any other student, they took coursework that aligned with their career aspirations and were involved in campus life, including being the co-presidents of the PSU Unified Sports team and holding on campus jobs. Actually, many of PSU’s student body probably knows each of them due to their visible roles on campus. Will was a part of PSU’s landscaping and facility team, Lucy at the Child Development Center and Sawyer at Campus Rec. These Vikings had the opportunity to live a normal student life, participate as one of the student body’s leaders and become one of the classroom’s brightest stars.
It is with great pleasure to share, watch and celebrate the graduation of Will Larson, Lucy Balthazaar & Sawyer Viola, Athletes from PSU, for being the first students ever to graduate with a Career and Community Studies certificate from Portland State University! They are joined by Rachel Esteve and Wyatt Isaacs to be the first cohort to graduate with an undergraduate certificate from the program.
Get to know these graduates:
Will Larson graduated with a Career and Community Studies certificate with a focus of Special Education and teaching. Will secured a part-time job as a Youth Coordinator at Northwest Down Syndrome Association (NWDSA). Will performs administrative tasks such as data entry, paper copying, emailing and providing customer service. Additionally, he supports monitoring and coordinating workshops focused on youth advocacy. Eventually, Will would like to be a paraeducator at Portland Public School District. When Will isn’t working, you can find him spending time playing sports like soccer, basketball and softball on PSU’s Unified Sports team. One of my favorite memories of Will is when we were at the 2017 Basketball Winter Regionals and he was our point guard. Will made sure everyone had the opportunity to not only touch the ball but to take a shot. Eventually we had to beg Will to start shooting the ball when he was wide open instead of passing it off to a teammate. All of a sudden Will became an NBA player and knocked down four 3’s in that game, it was unreal. Outside of all of this, Will is a reliable volunteer. You can find him at team volunteer initiatives like the Timbers and Thorns 50/50 Raffle that supports Special Olympics Oregon.
Lucy Balthazaar graduated with a Career and Community Studies certificate with a focus in Human Services. Lucy is a teacher qualified student worker at Portland State’s Helen Gordon Child Development Center. She eventually wants to work at guest services at OMSI or be a paraprofessional in child development centers at a local school district. During her time at PSU, she was the safety officer for the Portland State Unified Sports team as well as the Co-President. She helped manage the budget as well as ensure the team was in compliance to retain the club’s specialized status. She is quite the athlete as she is a soccer and basketball star for PSU and a swim and shotput stand out for Multnomah County. You may have also seen Lucy in multiple communication’s at PSU as she is often a spokeswoman for the clubs and programs she is involved with. One of my favorite memories of Lucy is doing our first Polar Plunge together. Per usual, I was the one scared to go into the freezing Columbia River in February, but of course, Lucy wouldn’t let my own fear stop me and gave me a pep talk. Instead, we linked hands as a team and ran into that river and when I stopped at knee high water, Lucy encouraged me to continue on with her just a little deeper to our hips. Boy, is that a cold memory but the love she shared with me, warms my heart. In addition to being a fearless leader, Lucy volunteers at multiple events, including recruitment events for Special Olympics Oregon and PSU’s Unified Sports team.
Sawyer Viola graduated with a Career and Community Studies certificate with a focus of Sport & Fitness Administration/Management. He plans on obtaining a job at Nike or Special Olympics Oregon due to his love of sports. While at PSU he worked at Campus Rec and for the Athletics Department to fulfill his desire to be in sports management and provide a meaningful experience for all fans and visitors. When Sawyer isn’t helping produce an exciting sporting environment, he is often taking part in one from swimming and athletics with the Multnomah County Local Program and soccer, basketball and softball for PSU. He even partakes in the annual Polar Plunge 5k to add to his endless medal collection. If you can play it, you can bet Sawyer will be there to participate. One of my favorite memories of Sawyer was during a bowling night with the team. It was cosmic bowling, Sawyer was busting out a few moves before he approached his lane and all of a sudden he went on a strike spree getting four strikes in his game. To this day, I’m not sure if I’m more impressed by his dance moves or all the strikes he got. You can find Sawyer attending volunteer events with the team such as planting trees for Friends of Trees and recruitment events for Special Olympics Oregon and PSU Unified Sports team.
While I reflect on all the success of Will, Lucy and Sawyer that I have been able to witness, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude to be a small part of their journey. These three have worked very hard the last four years and I, along with the rest of our PSU Unified Sports team are very proud! Over the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure of reflecting on their journey since the day I met them and it is a humbling experience. Thanks to Special Olympics Oregon, I was able to meet my best friends and have a place to go every Saturday to practice and spend time with them. Thanks to Portland State, we were able to have an inclusive club that has allowed individuals with intellectual disabilities space on the court and allow volunteers to join their team. In addition to a spot on the court, the University supported opportunity in the classroom for these individuals. It’s moments like this that I am not only proud to be a Viking but proud to be a part of this community. Our community here in Oregon really does strive to ensure that everyone is included, has an opportunity to be their true selves and allows all of us to have pride in our achievements. Right now, there is no better time to be an individual with intellectual disabilities since we as a community, as a society, continue to support our community both on and off the field more than ever before. I encourage all of us to remember that inclusion, opportunity and pride should be at the forefront of our decisions from our personal and professional life. As Oregonians, I urge you to continue to be a leader in this space; invite people with intellectual disabilities to participate in your pickup game, interview for that open job on your team and include at your next function. By having an inclusive community, we will continue to see individuals of all abilities shine.
As I wrap up this letter to you, Oregon, I want to ask that you join me in congratulating once again our Portland State graduates, Will, Lucy and Sawyer, the trail blazers for our community!
P.S. Real World, if you are looking to expand your workforce diversity with individuals who are dedicated, passionate and hardworking, contact these three. Choose to include, you won’t regret it!
Chair, Young Professionals Council