COLUMBIA — Words matter.
That’s what students at Pleasant Hope High School set out to teach their classmates when they entered the first Special Olympics Missouri video contest.
The contest, part of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, was created to raise awareness about the use of the “R-word” as a pejorative term referring to individuals with mental disabilities and to encourage Missouri high school students to join in the movement against the word.
"The idea was that we wanted to give our high schoolers the chance to explain to other people why the R-word was hurtful or why the R-word shouldn't be used by anybody," said Brandon Schatsiek, Special Olympics Missouri's public relations coordinator, who created the contest.
High school senior Megan O’Leary, a Special Olympics volunteer for the past two years, was excited about the chance to return to the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games and create a video with her fellow student council members.
“When we heard about it, we were like, ‘We’ve got to do it, we’ve got to go,'” O’Leary said.
Some students wrote the script for the video and others acted. O’Leary and her twin sister edited the video afterward.
According to contest rules, high school faculty members could help students plan and direct the videos but were not permitted to shoot or edit any content. The two schools that submitted videos to the contest — Pleasant Hope High School and Warrenton High School — were judged based on the number of Twitter retweets and Facebook "likes" that their videos received on Special Olympics Missouri's social media websites. Student council adviser Jacob Conklin said that was not an easy thing for a town such as Pleasant Hope, which has a population of 614 and a student body of about 250.
As the winners of the competition, 12 Pleasant Hope students got an opportunity to attend the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games in Columbia and volunteer at events of their choice. Their travel expenses, meals and lodging for the weekend would be paid for.
While Schatsiek had hoped to have more schools participate in the contest, he said, he was impressed with the content he received from the students and the way the students took initiative to spread a positive message.
“Just seeing the youths really support this movement to end the use of a derogatory word towards our friends with intellectual disabilities — it just means a lot to everybody in the program, especially me," he said.
Conklin, who has volunteered with Special Olympics Missouri for the past four years and is a special education teacher at Pleasant Hope, hopes his students will continue to support the campaign, though he admits topping this year’s video will be a challenge.
“There were teachers that came to me that said that it made them cry,” Conklin said. “They said that there were students that they thought wouldn't care but they teared up in class, and they kind of saw a change in them. That's what it's all about."
This story was written by one of 11 students participating in the Sports Journalism Institute, hosted by MU. This is the 22nd class for the Institute, designed to provide minority and female students with a start in the sports journalism industry. This is SJI's third year at Missouri.