MONTICELLO, Minn. (WCCO) -- Minnesota is one of a handful of states where high schools are not required to have a formal relationship with the Special Olympics.
But many do offer programs where kids of all ability levels spend time together, like in Monticello, where Unified programs are building lifelong friendships.
More than anything, Ethan Fick and Tyler Rousslang love hockey.
"We've been friends since like second grade. It's been a long time. We were in the same class," Rousslang said.
The Monticello seniors found that common bond early, and the school's Unified program encourages student athletes to become unified partners.
"I feel like it creates a really friendly environment. Everybody just gets excited to come to school, and I think everyone's a lot more inclusive, not just in Unified, but outside of Unified in their classes," senior volleyball player Natalie Emmerich said. "Even outside of school people are more comfortable with being themselves and being authentic."
"It really opened my eyes a little bit to how we can't take anything for granted," Luke Emmerich, a freshman and football player said.
The classes range from physical education to music.
"At first I thought it was going to be like singing, and I was like, 'Ooh, not for me.' But it's instrument playing, it's a class anyone can do," freshman football player Luke Emmerich said.
"We don't do any activities that would exclude anybody. We only do stuff that includes everybody," Unified music teacher Nathan Herfindahl said.
That level playing field allows for the partners to exercise leadership.
"They're learning ten times more, and we try to train their peers at first. Treat them like you would any other kid," special education teacher Terri Miller said. "If they're doing something annoying, or they're doing something that's funny, tell them, and they'll learn through those real-life experiences."
The impact is profound and lasting.
"I don't think I can just let this go after high school. I just have so much fun and I want to bring it into a career, hopefully," Natalie Emmerich said.
Not only are they helping to foster the most inclusive environment possible, but these students are building lifelong friendships. That's the most rewarding part of the Unified program.
"At first it was doing something nice for someone, and now it's he's genuinely my friend," Rousslang said.
Unified helps kids develop and achieve together. As Fick and Rousslang have shown us, it becomes so much more.
"It's just a relationship that I would have missed out on if I wouldn't have taken that extra step to say hi," Rousslang said.
The Special Olympics is currently working with dozens of Minnesota schools on similar programs.
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