By Savanah Mandeville

Kristin Whitton truly loves what she does.

As a special education teacher at Lamar High School, every single day of work offers rewards and challenges that let her know she has found her true calling.

“I quickly fell in love with special education,” she said. “You get to work with students to overcome things that are standing in their way and help them to find coping mechanisms and self-advocate. When you see them use a coping mechanism independently, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Whitton’s love for her students led her to starting the Lamar School District’s first Special Olympics team in 2019.

“Lamar is phenomenal at supporting high school activities. I often saw my students going to games and cheering, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we set up a program where these kids can showcase what they can do?’” Whitton said. “I wanted them to get to experience the thrill of competition and pushing themselves hard and experience everyone cheering them on.”

Whitton started fundraising, and in spring 2019, she started the Special Olympics with an eight-person high school team.

“We did a track and field event, and it was wonderful,” she said. “We had a really great turnout from the community. Community members made great gift baskets, the police gave us an escort out of town, and we got to see our kids get cheered on and have them represent our school.”

In fall 2019, Whitton was able to expand into a district-wide bowling event for third grade through twelfth grade with a total of 40 participants (20 general education students and 20 students who receive special education instruction) working together as a unified team.

“I realized if we can start students young at third grade and develop a community, they’ll know who their junior high special education teachers are going to be, and they can see older kids doing really wonderful things in high school, and I’m hoping that gives them a model, and I hope it’s something they can be,” she said.

Unfortunately, the Special Olympics was cancelled for spring 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, but Whitton hopes to kick it off again as soon as possible and eventually expand to more than two events per year.

In the meantime, she has continued to go above and beyond for her students by developing a unique work program through a coffee stand at the high school.

“I want to give them real-life experiences that help them develop skills like handling money,” she said. “They can then vote and decide what to do with the money they earned. We’re focusing big time on job skills and social skills.”

Whitton said she does all this because she believes her students deserve a platform to be celebrated.

“I aim to provide opportunities for all students to find success as well as a chance to be celebrated by their peers,” she said. “I truly love celebrating all abilities and cheering on our student athletes as they showcase their perseverance, endurance and love of friendly competition.”