Inclusive Health: Strong Minds Program Introduced at Unified Champion Schools

Everyone’s tired of Covid. Though we’ve made significant strides, the pandemic wears on, keeping many communities in isolation—especially people with disabilities. 

Here at Special Olympics New York, we’re doing everything we can to bring our athletes together while keeping things safe and healthy. In the fall, we offered our Strong Minds program to more than 200 students in several Genesee and Western Region Unified Champion Schools. And the best part is this: Your school could be next! 

The Background

Our Strong Minds program is all about mental health, as the name implies. During these stressful and uncertain times, we believe such programs are essential. But here’s the kicker: Unlike our traditional health initiatives, this Strong Minds school program is proactive. In other words, we bring health to our athletes at school rather than wait for them to come to us. 

And how did we develop the curriculum? Our team worked with Nicole Fuller, a Masters of Psychology student at SUNY Brockport. Fuller engaged Strong Minds clinical directors, Unified coaches, APE teachers, Special Education teachers, and other professionals to develop this model. Each of them was trained and certified to work with our athletes.

The Program

This Strong Minds initiative teaches students adaptive coping skills and strategies to maintain emotional wellness. Athletes practice relaxation breathing, cognitive restructuring, muscle relaxation, yoga, and more. These activities take up to 30 minutes per day to complete, with a total of six weeks in the curriculum. 

“The need for this program was clear,” said Jess Dauvergne, Director of Program for Unified Sports. “Statistics on feelings of isolation and stress among Special Olympics athletes were over 75% and many of our Unified Champion Schools were still in remote/hybrid learning settings. As soon as we reached out to our experts in the field, the team came together, the program was built, and the result has been incredible.” 

“The breathing ball lessons were amazing,” said Amanda Mills of North Tonawanda. “The students took so much out of the lessons. They will actually come to the classroom and get the breathing balls when they are stressed and having a bad day.” 

The Need 

Even before the pandemic, people with disabilities have long suffered health care inadequacies. According to a 2019 survey, among the average Special Olympics New York training club, three of 10 will have untreated tooth decay, five of 10 will need new eyeglasses, and eight of 10 will be obese. Therefore, it’s essential to spread our health programs everywhere we can—including schools. 

“If we can provide our athletes with opportunities to learn and practice healthy habits at an earlier age, we’ll be setting them up for success throughout their lifespans,” said Dauvergne. “By introducing our Strong Minds program to students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, we know that these athletes will learn healthy habits that will last well beyond those six-weeks in their classroom.”

What comes next?

Strong Minds could be coming to your Unified Champion School in 2022! Complete this interest survey for our next Strong Minds in a UCS program running March 2022 in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. 

Not a Unified Champion School? Email unified@nyso.org to get your school involved today!