Flathead Reservation Pilot Project Open House Highlights

Flathead Reservation Pilot Project Open House Highlights

Special Olympics MT (SOMT) launched a Flathead Reservation pilot project—the first of its kind nationwide—with an Open House at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) on October 5th. Attended by over 110 people of all ages, ethnicities, and ability levels, the event showcased opportunities available through a 3-year, grant-funded effort to improve health and social inclusion for Flathead Reservation-based Montanans with intellectual disability. Project components include training and competition in Native games, basketball, bowling, and other sports; free health screenings; and a school-based (Head Start-college) program called “Unified Champion Schools.” SKC students and other community members will serve as mentors and volunteers.

The project is led by SOMT staff—Tribal Outreach Director April Charlo; VP of Unified Strategy LeAnn Dolly-Powell; and Outreach Director Megan Hill—in collaboration with CSKT Health and Education directors Kevin Howlett and Bill Swaney (respectively) and others to address reservation-specific needs. Howlett notes, “This is a long time in coming. But now that the idea has presented itself, I consider it a moral imperative.”

People from schools across the reservation, Mission Mountain Enterprises, SKC, and elsewhere attended the Open House to learn about Special Olympics. “Schools Out to Lunch” and a community dinner, open to the public, featured stew, pulled pork, coleslaw, and fry bread in addition to interactive sports, an obstacle course, informational booths, and guest speakers. Law enforcement officers were on hand to explain how the community can support the project through activities including Polar Plunges and Tip-A-Cop events.

Some of the event’s most compelling speakers were Polson High School student “Unified teammates,” who include special education students in the mainstream school community under the direction of teacher Kris Kelly. Sophomore Hailey Tallmadge said of students with intellectual disability, “They honestly teach me more than I teach them.” Junior Michael Vergeront remarked, “I don’t see these kids as people with disabilities anymore . . . they are my friends, my classmates.” Senior Sarah Konen said, “I’m just thankful for Miss Kelly. She’s there for me and there for everyone . . . and I just want everyone to know that the Special Olympics has changed my life.”

Kelly observed that engaging students with intellectual disability while they are in school is critical: “Once you graduate, if you’re not agency-based, you’re at home and you have to fill 24- hour days seven days a week.” If these students don’t feel connected, “you’ll lose them for the next 60 years . . . and that’s just not fair to a subset of people.” Ronan School Board trustee Rich Janssen said, “All I can tell you is that Special Olympics is dear to my heart, and I hope it will be to yours as well.”

The project is funded by almost $350,000 in grants from the M.J. Murdock Trust ($250,000); Terry and Patt Payne ($50,000); the MT Healthcare Foundation ($20,000); the Gilhousen Family Foundation ($12,500); the O.P. and W.E. Edwards Foundation ($5,000); and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux ($5,000).

US Senators Tester and Daines, Governor Bullock, Attorney General Fox, Superintendent of Public Instruction Juneau, Director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services Opper, and UM College of Humanities & Sciences Dean Comer provided letters of support for grant applications.

Tester writes, “The Special Olympics provide athletes, and their families, with the opportunity to develop friendships and skills that will last a lifetime. I believe it is critical that folks here in Indian Country have access to those same opportunities. That is why as your Senator and Vice Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee I have always supported funding for the Special Olympics.” Daines observes, “Unified Champion Schools are a key component to enhance life on reservations through athletic activities—including those that help to preserve Native games and traditions—and through development of communities of respect for all people. I am honored to have secured a $2.5 million increase in federal funding for Special Olympics Project UNIFY/Unified Champion Schools.”

SOMT approached the MT Advisory Council on Indian Education (MACIE) in 2014 to ask whether Special Olympics opportunities would be welcome in Indian Country. Thanks in part to remarks by Native American SOMT athlete Keith King, a unanimous vote of approval to implement the programs on all seven reservations was secured. At that time, and again at this Open House, SOMT president/CEO Bob Norbie said: “Imagine for a moment being labeled as someone different. Imagine living every day being minimized, marginalized, ostracized, or bullied. SOMT athletes are daily faced with those kinds of challenges. Daily. We need to change that. The Special Olympics movement is changing that.”

For information on school-based programs, contact April Charlo (ACharlo@somt.org) or LeAnn Dolly-Powell (LPowell@somt.org). To register as an adult SOMT athlete, contact Megan Hill (MHill@somt.org). To donate, contact Cindy Everts (CEverts@somt.org).

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