By JACKIE ROMAN
GLOCESTER – Two weeks ago, among the pinstripe suits and bureaucrats of Capitol Hill, stood two Ponganset High School students, brushing shoulders with lawmakers and leaders in an effort to promote the integration of students with intellectual disabilities in public institutions. Leeann Phillips and Sarah Charbonneau were the two students asked by Special Olympics of Rhode Island CEO Dennis DeJesus to head to Washington D.C., along with Ponaganset teacher Jennifer Paolantonio, for the Special Olympics 15th annual Capitol Hill Day.
Their goal was to share how inclusion and acceptance could be promoted in the high school atmosphere.
“They felt we embodied that better than any school in the state,” Paolantonio said.
Phillips is a 20-year-old who lives with Down Syndrome and is part of a program at Ponaganset that integrates and assimilates students with special needs with the rest of the student population.
For Phillips, who has been a Special Olympics participant since she was a kid, the Unified sports program at the school has been especially important. The program brings together Special Olympics athletes and classmates in school as teammates on a unified team. It’s one of the main activities that Phillips says helps her make friends and just have fun, like every high school student.
But Phillips has been an advocate for herself long before her trip to Washington.
Two years ago, on National Down Syndrome Awareness Day, she gave a presentation to her school about the genetic condition.
Last year, she helped organize the “Spread the word to end the word” campaign at Ponaganset High School, which asked students to make a pledge of respect, instead of using the offensive and outdated slur for people with Down Syndrome – “retarded.”
Charbonneau is one of the students who took that pledge to spread inclusivity, and she happens to be Phillips’ teammate with Unified sports.
“I wanted to be a part of it from the start,” Charbonneau said of her involvement with Unified.
When the pair went to Washington D.C, they met Congressman David Cicilline, Congressman Jim Langevin, DeJesus, and even Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
“I cannot believe the kind of commitment and dedication it takes to compete,” DeVos said at a gathering that week.
While Phillips enjoyed the work, when asked which part of the excursion she liked most, she focused on friendship.
“Probably hanging out with Sarah and Ms. Paolantonio,” Phillips said.
Charbonneau will be pursuing a nursing degree in the fall, and continuing her volunteerism.
As for Phillips, she won’t be turning away from the spotlight any time soon.
“My dream is to be famous,” Phillips said.