New Brunswick

'It will make your soul smile': Miramichi students bond with Special Olympians

Grade 12 student Maggie Jardine thought Ms. O'Neill MacDonnell's leadership class sounded like "an amazing opportunity," but the Miramichi Valley High School teen had no idea that helping to plan the Special Olympics New Brunswick Winter Games would change her outlook on life.

Miramichi Valley students changed forever by a one-of-a-kind class planning Special Olympics NB Winter Games

Grade 12 student Maggie Jardine and athlete Michael Clark have become good friends since September, when Jardine's Miramichi Valley High School leadership class began helping to plan the Special Olympics NB Winter Games. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Grade 12 student Maggie Jardine thought Ann O'Neill MacDonnell's leadership class sounded like "an amazing opportunity," but the Miramichi Valley High School teen had no idea it would completely change her outlook on life.

The class, offered by the English teacher known simply as, "Miss Mac," charged 17 students with helping to plan and organize the Special Olympics NB Winter Games, which open Thursday evening in Miramichi. 

Since September, Jardine and her classmates have become certified Special Olympics coaches, volunteer score keepers at Sunday night bowling practices, photographers, graphic designers and new friends.

Miramichi Valley students bond with local athletes while organizing the Special Olympics New Brunswick Winter Games. 0:37

For Jardine, the best part has been getting to know the 41 athletes in her community who will be competing. 

"They are the definition of genuine and down to earth," Jardine wrote in a class essay.

"These athletes accept every person in their life without judgement."

Going to bowling on Sunday is the highlight of my weekend. They're always so happy to see me and I'm just as happy to see them.- Grade 12 student Maggie Jardine

Floor hockey defenceman and 10-pin bowler Michael Clark describes Jardine and her classmate Kale Power as his "best friends in the whole wide world."

"Maggie and Kale, they are the best students the school has got and I have got to know them, I have got to be their best friend."

Michael Clark, along with 40 other Miramichi-area athletes, will be competing in the Special Olympics NB Winter Games, which open Thursday evening and run through Sunday. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

For Jardine, the bond she has made with the athletes, including Clark, has been an unexpected reward.

"Going to bowling on Sunday is the highlight of my weekend," she said. "They're always so happy to see me and I'm just as happy to see them.

"By being exposed to their open-heartedness, it has opened my own heart and made my face, heart and soul smile."

Class has become a team

Special Olympics is a worldwide movement offering people with intellectual disabilities a chance to compete on the provincial, national and world stage. 

When O'Neill MacDonnell found out last year that the Special Olympics NB Winter Games would be taking place this month in Miramichi, she knew immediately that she wanted to get her students involved.

"I've just always been connected to community," she said as she explained why she volunteers. "It's just something I grew up with … to me that's what you do if you want to be part of the world."

Teacher Ann O'Neill MacDonnell believes authentic life experiences are what learning is all about. She said working on the games has taken her students beyond the classroom and into the community. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"So this is just one way for me to teach this to my students and to know that we all have something to give."

In September, all of the students completed a two-day course to become Special Olympics coaches before they each took on a personal project that fit their interests and strengths.

Students at Miramichi Valley High School have spent the past five months planning and organizing the upcoming Special Olympics New Brunswick Winter Games. The CBC's Vanessa Blanch shares their story. 9:41

"Instead of me telling the students what to do or what we should do they started brainstorming and … eventually everyone in the class had their own project," O'Neill MacDonnell said. "I don't even say it's a class anymore, I say it's a team."

Wall of Fame welcomes 1st Special Olympian

Jardine's project was to celebrate Ashlin Adams, who is one of Miramichi's most successful Special Olympians.

She and a few of her classmates contacted his family and his coaches and nominated this multi-sport athlete for the Miramichi Sports Wall of Fame.

He's the first Special Olympian to be inducted so that's something to be excited about.- Grade 12 student Maggie Jardine

Adams, who will compete in floor hockey this weekend, has excelled in snowshoeing and track and field and won medals in both the summer and winter games.

"He went to three World Games and this is something I've never even heard of so to bring awareness to athletes like him — it was amazing," Jardine said.

Ashlin Adams, seen here in the grey suit, was inducted into the Miramichi Sports Wall of Fame on Feb. 15. He is one of New Brunswick's most decorated Special Olympians. A group of students from Miramichi Valley High School nominated Adams to bring awareness to his achievements. (Submitted by Ann O'Neill MacDonnell)

Adams won two silver medals at the 2001 World Winter Games in Alaska and a bronze at the World Games in Nagano, Japan in 2002 in snowshoeing. He won a silver medal in track at the World Games in Shanghai, China in 2007. 

"He's the first Special Olympian to be inducted so that's something to be excited about," Jardine said. "He was beyond excited because nobody really knew." 

"We're pretty excited about that too."

Partnership includes local photographer

When Kale Power introduces himself, he jokes that his name "sounds like a smoothie."

The soft-spoken Grade 12 student decided his personal project would be to photograph and create promotional posters for each of the 41 athletes.

"I never would have known that I would be making posters for all of our athletes and not only that, but getting close with each of them, and becoming very good friends with them," he said, looking over at Michael Clark who had tears in his eyes as he listened.

Grade 12 student Kale Power, with the guidance of Miramichi photographer Jordan Pinder, created posters for all 41 local athletes participating in the games. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"Oh yeah, [Michael] got my number one night at bowling and we've been connected through texts and he added me on Snapchat," Power said of his new friend.

Power, who has also made connections with other athletes, remembers the Christmas party where one of the athletes was upset and he was able to spend some time with him and listen.

"I was able to help comfort him and he thanked me afterwards. Moments like that, not only those, but going to bowling to help keep score … we're all just friends with them really, more than anything else."

'Is this really me?'

The best moment so far for Power was when he handed the finished posters out to the athletes after their floor hockey and bowling practices.

"They were so excited. They were clapping and it was just a really feel-good moment," he said. "I was excited to get them around town but more so to give them to the athletes … I knew that they would enjoy them and they're so deserving."

For students in Ann O'Neill MacDonnell's leadership class, handing out a poster celebrating each of the athletes was one of the best moments so far of helping to organize the Special Olympics NB Winter Games. (Submitted by Ann O'Neill MacDonnell)

Anthony McLean, who describes himself as "a very good bowler," will be competing in candlepin 10-pin bowling.

His poster shows him with a ball over one shoulder and a pin over the other.

"The poster, when I first saw it, I was like, 'Oh my God is this really me?,'" McLean said. "I said, 'OK, I'm being surrounded by the paparazzi.'"

Athlete Anthony McLean's favourite quotation is, 'To achieve things we must first dream,' which he said comes from 'the ever popular cosmetics founder Coco Chanel.' McLean said being part of the Special Olympics feels like a dream to him. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Photographer Jordan Pinder said when O'Neill MacDonnell asked him to help the class create the posters, he expected he would be doing a lot of "hand holding."

"But to my surprise, after maybe an hour and a half of trying to teach them the basics, I let them try their hand at it and then within a few days, Ann had sent me a picture of the first finished poster and it was perfect."

Grade 12 student Kale Power took photos of all 41 Miramichi-area athletes and created a poster featuring each one of them for games. (Submitted by Ann O'Neill MacDonnell)

Pinder, a graduate of Miramichi Valley High School and a past student of Miss Mac, said he felt like he was part of a team, rather than a mentor in a high school class.

"We all come from different backgrounds so it was just a group effort with everyone putting their best foot forward."  

Everybody had to be all in

Miss Mac never stops smiling as she watches her students and the athletes doing interviews and posing for pictures on this day.

"Everybody had to be all in, and they were all in," she said.

"I'm getting a little verklempt here, a little teary. I do feel like a million bucks and only because I'm glad they feel like a million bucks. I'm glad my students feel like a million bucks, I'm glad the athletes feel like a million bucks."

Athlete Alex Fiander will be refereeing floor hockey and competing in bowling at the games.

Alex Fiander will be competing at the Special Olympics NB Winter Games in 10-pin bowling. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

He said Power and Jardine and the other students "do a very excellent job" keeping score at Sunday night bowling, but it's much more than that.

"It's not just a community," he said. "To me it feels like a big family being part of this."

For Jardine, applying to be part of this unique class led by Miss Mac, has turned out to be the best decision of her graduation year.

"This class has become so much more than a course for me. It really became a passion of mine and it has changed my outlook on life to meet these new people."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca