CSU only university to receive national recognition for inclusion from Special Olympics, ESPN

Colorado State University and University of Colorado face off for the Special Olympics Rocky Mountain Showdown Unified Flag Football game, August 27, 2019 at Canvas Stadium.

CSU hosted the CSU-CU Unified football game in August, part of a project inspired by ESPN to bring Unified teams together during rivalry weeks across the country.

Colorado State University is the only university to earn the distinction of a National Banner School as part of the inaugural Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools National Recognition Program.

CSU, as well as high schools Miami Southridge Senior in Florida, Bullitt East in Kentucky, Hendrickson in Texas and Fife in Washington state were the first five schools to have met the 10 national standards of inclusion; each was nominated by their state Special Olympics program and will take part in a national banner presentation.

“There’s no question inclusion is important to us,” said Patrick Krza, director of community engagement and fan experience for CSU athletics. “It’s an important piece of what we do as an athletic department.”

It’s also part of the university’s Principles of Community, adopted in 2015 as an expression of the shared values of faculty, staff and students at CSU.

Unified Generation

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools intentionally promotes meaningful social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities to create an accepting school environment through three interconnected components: Special Olympics Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement.

Through the program, Special Olympics strives to create a Unified Generation. At Colorado State, everyone plays a role, as administration, student organizations and student athletes take part in promoting the objective.

“We do these things without the intention of gaining any kind of recognition, and it’s something that’s been consistently a part of our DNA and is who we are,” said CSU Director of Athletics Joe Parker. “I have to give a lot of credit to Patrick on our staff, because this is something he’s put a big focus on. He’s really built the relationship and, over time, figured out ways to enhance the Unified Football game.”

“We do these things without the intention of gaining any kind of recognition, and it’s something that’s been consistently a part of our DNA and is who we are.” — Joe Parker, CSU director of athletics

The Unified Football game against the University of Colorado, one of the most successful events Krza has helped organize, was played this year at Canvas Stadium the same week as the Rocky Mountain Showdown. The leaders of both institutions have made a pledge to continue the game, even in years the collegiate game is not scheduled.

Student organizations, such as Special Olympics (SO) College and Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLiCE), are a big part of CSU receiving national recognition. Jeff Franklin, the Northeast Regional Special Olympics director, credits the combined work of SO College and the athletic department for the honor. Under the guidance of Mallory Gustin, a CSU senior, SO College has grown to a seven-person board, and it was their work on the application that led to CSU’s inclusion as a banner school.

“There’s a reason they were picked. The SO College for the last two years under the leadership of Mallory has just taken it to new places, things we didn’t think were possible,” Franklin said. “What started as a one-day kickball tournament three years ago has turned into yearly, around-the-clock unified leagues for all team sports, and you add that on top of solo events, clinics, and opportunities for athletes to attend men’s and women’s basketball game and CSU football games and be recognized at halftime.”

More inclusive every year

Gustin is impressed with the university’s inclusivity footprint. She sees positive work being done with a heartfelt effort to strengthen athletic and other programs on campus.

“I personally believe we are growing more and more inclusive every year I’ve been here,” Gustin said. “I’m currently a senior, and I’ve seen more clubs pop up on campus and even the No Place For Hate campaign. There can always be improvement, but I do feel like CSU is a very inclusive place.

“We are over the moon about this honor,” she added. “We have grown from five athletes and 10 to 15 committed students coming to our events and be a part of our club two years ago. To see those numbers exponentially rise and the programs we offer being successful on campus, we’re very grateful, but we’re really excited to keep growing.”

Krza could not be more appreciative of the participation of CSU’s student-athletes. Since July, the group has put in a combined 1,700 service hours, and more importantly, they care about what they are doing. He said he’s received nothing but positive feedback about their involvement, from organizers to the Special Olympians and their families.

Nico Carvacho, the NCAA Division I leader in rebounding in men’s basketball last season, has come to know a few of the Special Olympians, as they are regular fans at Moby Arena. He enjoys returning the favor by cheering them on and giving out as many high-fives as he can.

“It’s really cool, just being able to have somebody cheer for them like they cheer for us,” he said. “I love giving back to them. At the Unified Football game, the whole team was having fun, jumping around, cheering. It was a competitive environment, but a fun environment.

To Carvacho and many of his fellow CSU student athletes, the time spent volunteering is a gift and shows how welcoming the university has become.

“I’m really happy we were able to do that. It shows we’re more than just an athletic department,” he continued. “Everybody should be included in all of these things, whether you’re an athlete, a student with disabilities or any student. No matter who you are or what you do, you should especially feel like you are a part of something.”

More events

Krza’s group is working hard to set up a Unified Basketball game, with the logistic planning ongoing. He sees the work of others on campus and loves the fact there are many organizations involved, either together or on their own.

TGIF – Thank Golly It’s Friday – holds proms for special needs students, as does Night To Shine. There are bowling events, basketball teams play at halftime of some games and the university helps host various field days, as well as a main push by Special Olympics, the state flag football tournament. CSU hosted it last year, using six fields to house 60 teams, an increase of 20 entrants.

Krza was honored CSU is on the list of the first National Banner Schools, but it won’t change his mission. For him, there was a commitment made long ago, and while they are enthusiastic in their work, the goal remains to increase awareness and participation.

“We don’t do this because we want accolades. We do this because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s important to our community,” Krza said. “This took an army, it took a bunch of us on campus. I organize events, and I try to be as much help as I can, and yes, I do champion some of these things, but it’s the right thing to do, and it’s an honor for us to receive it.

“We want to strengthen our community, and it’s not just about people with special needs,” he added. “It’s important to have that inclusion for everybody to be a part of the community.”