RICHMOND, Va. -- At Oak-Grove Bellemeade Elementary School in Richmond, students are engaged in several activities focused on building new friendships. It kicked off earlier this month with a special inclusion week.
“It’s something we celebrate, absolutely celebrate here at Oak Grove,” Assistant Vice Principal Christal Jorden said. “They also learn about just being different and how they can support each other and that’s what we see in the hallways; they are holding hands, they’re sitting with someone new at lunch, they’re helping put bikes together that the Special Olympics donated to us.”
As part of its Unified Champion City Schools (U.C.S.) program, Special Olympics, and Richmond Public Schools joined forces to help children learn more about the importance of making others feel accepted and respected for their differences.
This fall, Richmond Schools hired Torrie Lashley to help schools spread the initiative, which includes promoting youth leadership, whole-school engagement, and inclusive sports.
“I understand my ‘why.’ I am a connector of people,” Lashley said.
Lashley said she hoped to eventually expand the program into all Richmond Public Schools, especially as communities continue to recover from the isolation of the pandemic and the emotional toll of racial unrest.
“This inclusion week has been eye opening, I think, for everyone across the RPS district,” Lashley said. “We are truly trying to make a much bigger change and change the culture of every single school in RPS. There are no limits, and we don’t want anyone to feel that they’re alone.”
So far, more than 200 Virginia schools are participating in the U.C.S. initiative, including preschools and several elementary schools in Richmond. The program is funded by Special Olympics.
Capital Region Director, Pam Mines, coordinates the program for schools across the region.
“I have a son who has autism and intellectual disabilities,” Mines said. “As a parent, it’s very rewarding because I can see, had my son had this at two years old or three years old or four years old, or at this elementary level, he would have had friends much earlier.”
At Oak Grove, Jorden said she’s seeing new friendships form every day because of the inclusive environment.
The school shared several pictures of inclusion week, including a picture of several children supporting each other.
“In that picture, you will see, but you won’t know, there are two students with autism, there’s a student with a medical condition, and two students without disabilities, but all you see are children,” Jorden said.
“Maya Angelou said it best,” Lashley added. “People will forget what you say, they’ll often times forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”
While this year’s U.C.S. program focuses on the preschool and elementary level in Richmond, Lashley said Richmond Schools hoped to expand the program to middle and high schools in the coming years. She’s encouraging principals and teachers who are interested in the program, to reach out to her.
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.