Volunteer Spotlight: Mark Chiljian on the Power of Unified Programs

By Peter Tkac

Mark Chiljian is an educator at Mission Viejo High School in California, where he has taught and lead a Foundation Autism Challenges Class for the past 16 years. His school recently received National Banner Recognition as a result of its inclusive sports and activities for their students. Mark is a huge reason for this, although he prefers not to take all the credit. Instead, he chooses to shine the spotlight on his staff for their amazing work, the parents for their continued support, and most importantly, his students.

In total, Mark works with 26 students split between two classes in the school’s Unified program. The students enter the program as freshmen, continuing until they graduate as seniors. During this time, the students grow and develop through education and social interaction. Activities include sports such as track and field, cheerleading, basketball, as well as other fun activities. The students’ excitement and enthusiasm for these events is something Mark always loves to see, particularly from the incoming freshmen. “The students that are just experiencing it for the first time, they’re so excited to have jerseys, to compete against other teams,” says Mark. “They can go out, do their best, and show great sportsmanship.”

These Unified programs help bring students with and without disabilities together, whether it’s through sports, pep rallies, or throughout the day during classes. Mark believes this has helped promote inclusion overall amongst students, describing it as “an education for all – it shows everybody how to interact with each other and what the other person may need in terms of support.”

This kind of unity is what his program stands for, and he is appreciative of all the support he receives not just from his students, but from the parents and other staff members as well. “It takes everybody to make it successful,” says Mark. “All of us working together is what really makes this happen. It’s a big community effort.”

When it comes to the events, Mark says he often sees his upperclassmen take on a leadership role with their younger teammates. “The Seniors this year, they’re taking the Freshmen along with them and explain ‘Hey, here’s what to expect’,” Mark describes, adding, “When our students can lead, that’s really awesome to see.” These kinds of moments demonstrate the impact his program has on developing incredible skill sets for his students, and how much they grow throughout their high school years. For Mark, that is what his school is all about.

The importance of Unified programs like this and otherwise within Special Olympics is something Mark thinks cannot be understated, and he encourages others to join in on the fun. “Get Involved. You’ll love it, you’ll enjoy it, and it’ll really enrich your life,” he exclaims.

As mentioned, Mark prefers to talk about others in regard to the success of the Schools Program at Mission Viejo High. However, it is clear that without his passion for what he does and for his students, the program would not be the same. What is also evident is despite the tremendous impact he makes in each of his students’ lives, they make an even greater impact in his.  

“I’m an educator to start. My job is to take a student and help them grow and become more independent. Special Olympics helps give me the tools to help them be successful. I can’t imagine being without it,” he says.

People like Mark are helping us create an inclusive world. In his words, “Everybody deserves an opportunity to participate, have fun, and do the best that they can.” This idea of equality is part of what Special Olympics represents, and it is something Mark helps demonstrate every single day. 

Visit www.sosc.org/volunteer for more information on how you can get involved with Special Olympics.

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