“If I ever need anything I just call… Joan,” Jaeley Huelskamp cringed and laughed as she said the name “Joan.” Joan is more commonly known to Huelskam as “Mrs. Robertson.” It was only recently the two women transitioned from a student-teacher relationship to peers.
Huelskamp completed her inaugural year as an educator at Lake Fenton High School a few months ago. She first met Joan Robertson more than a decade ago, in 2013, as a freshman at Grand Blanc High School. Robertson was leading a new after-school program known as Project UNIFY.
"Not everyone likes doing this,” Huelskamp commented on Roberston’s commitment to the Unified movement. “Not everyone is capable of working with students and bringing them together.”
Project UNIFY – introduced by Special Olympics – was aimed at using sports to bring together students with and without intellectual disabilities. Project UNIFY has since transitioned to Unified Champion Schools (UCS).
“It was a club,” Robertson explained about her first year leading Project UNIFY. “It started after school and was very informal. We only had one sport: basketball.”
Fast forward ten years, the former student-teacher pair are now huddled around a table at the SOMI Unified Champion Schools (UCS) Conference with more than 250 other educators from across the state. The setting is animated, a constant buzz of idea sharing and brainstorming, each teacher preparing to empower students at the start of the school year.
“This has opened so many doors for me,” Huelskamp said on her involvement with UCS, something she credits to Robertson. “She’s a great friend. She’s a great mentor. Starting my own program, I look to her for everything. I just ask myself ‘How would Joan do this?’”
While Huelskamp had a built-in mentor when she went to launch UCS at her school last year, she knows everyone is not so lucky. Both women are strong advocates of leaning on others, which drew them to the SOMI UCS Conference this year.
“There is so much support out there,” Robertson explained. “We’re all in one room, talking to hundreds of other schools, hearing how they engage students. You have a network here. Everyone is there for you.”
In Grand Blanc, the small basketball club that hosted less than a handful of students has blossomed into an inclusive sports class hosted during the school day, countless Unified sports, a student-led leadership team, and whole school engagement.
“After I graduated, I kept coming back,” Huelskamp said about the relationship she’d formed with Special Olympics programming in Grand Blanc. “This is my calling.”
It was the foundation the pair grew together, that fueled Huelskamp’s career path, prompting her to write an essay on Unified journey and earn a full ride to Central Michigan University (CMU). There she played an active role with SO College, studied education, and went on to become a teacher committed to inclusion.
“I am lucky enough to have Joan,” Huelskamp said. “Not everyone has a Joan. Make connections, get support.”
Special Olympics Michigan’s UCS Programs are in nearly 500 schools across the state. To learn more or get involved contact visit https://www.somi.org/schools.