With Project Unify, high school leaders focus on inclusion

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The holiday gathering at Hilton Head Fire Station 3 was a joint effort of Project Unify, Hilton Head Fire Rescue and Pockets Full of Sunshine. Brooke Simons and Alexis Olivolo are on the front row, second and third, respectively, from left. SUBMITTED

Project Unify is unlike most other clubs open to all students at Hilton Head Island High School. There are no requirements for membership, no application, no dues, no special interest, and no specific skill or talent needed.

When leaders Brooke Simons and Alexis Olivolo say the club is for everyone, they mean all ages, all cultures, and all abilities. The purpose of the group is inclusion, especially for those who are often left out.

Because those with intellectual and developmental disabilities have their special education classes, they typically are separated from general education students.

"Kids don't understand how much separation there is," Brooke said. Alexis agreed. "They are so sectioned off," she said.

The club was started several years ago, and the two juniors heard about it on the student news broadcast when they were sophomores.

Brooke, whose passion for helping others is almost genetic (her grandparents have been island volunteers for more than 40 years, and her mother for all her life), knew this was the place for her. But there wasn't much participation, she said.

Alexis, who also got her passion for helping others from her parents' example, said she had looked at other clubs, but there wasn't another one for helping people. "This was a perfect idea," she said. When she connected with Brooke, "it became our main focus to get it going."

The club now has about 75 members. Within the larger group, the two started a Best Buddies group, in which members could spend one-on-one time together, with general ed students pairing with a special ed student. "It gives them someone outside of their group to talk to," Alexis said.

"It's important that they have someone to talk to," Brooke said. "It's cool when they see us in the hallway, and we say 'hi' and don't look away."

Project Unify offers a way to connect, to develop friendships and provide meaningful activities for everyone.

One of their primary activities is to work with Pockets Full of Sunshine (PFS), a local nonprofit for adults with special needs, providing a workplace and other programs. The group meets on Sundays to help with all kinds of projects.

Carol Bartholomew, co-founder of PFS, has been a "great mentor," Brooke said. Brooke is friends with Bartholomew's daughter, Sally, who is developmentally challenged, and who lives across the street from Brooke's grandparents.

"Project Unify friends have quickly become an integral prt of the Pockets Full of Sunshine family," Bartholomew said. "As individuals and as a group, they should be commended for their efforts and big hearts. The students have led events and developed themes and activities to include all abilities and enrich friendships. It's a beautiful thing!"

Bartholomew said the students help with the annual community Fun in the Sun for Everyone on the beach, fundraisers and a recent kick ball event - "That was a 'wow,'" she said.

Seasonal parties are among everyone's favorite events. A PFS Halloween party last year brought together the most people ever for a Project Unify event. Club members planned activities, including a costume contest, played games and provided food. In addition, Brooke said, "We set it all up and took it all down." Everyone had a blast, she said.

Weeks later, parents were still telling them how much their special students were talking about the party and what Project Unify did for them.

Bartholomew said the Project Unify students helped plan and lead a holiday gathering in December at Hilton Head Fire Station 3, working with PFS and Hilton Head Fire Rescue. "They wrote letters to Santa and mailed them to the North Pole, they strolled the festival of lights, made the firemen and Rays ice cream floats and sang Christmas songs," she said. The Rays are members of PFS.

Alexis said participation in the special events is open but not required for club members. "We don't want it to be a burden," she said. "We just want it to help the school and help the community. We want it to develop into a desire to help others, not just 'I have to do this for a club I'm in'."

Brooke and Alexis are looking ahead to bigger projects, such as a unified sports team that would meet after school. And maybe some Friday night gatherings. "I want to see us do more planning and implementing of our own ideas, our own events," Brooke said.

The two also recognize that once they graduate in 2021, Project Unify will need strong leaders to carry on. So they have made sure to include younger students in the planning this year. "We really want it to have an impact" in the school and greater community, Brooke said.

"We want to leave behind members who will keep it going - that's very important to us," Alexis said. "People find joy in different things. This is our joy."

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