Six years ago, Antonio McClinon was asked if he had any interest in helping start up a Unified Basketball team at Olympia High School through the Special Olympics.

McClinon, who works as a paraeducator and special education teacher at the school, was reluctant at first, wanting to help but at the same time knowing he was already stretched thin as he was juggling a packed schedule. Adding an extra item on the “to do list” seemed unlikely. But the Olympia ASB President at the time, Devan Hollar, was not taking no for an answer; he continued to ask, constantly pressing him to join in.

“After much consideration and his persistence, I said I would commit to one season,” McClinon recalled, “but as it turns out, it’s been a long one season.”

That it has. One long, rewarding season.

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Founded in 2019, Thurston County Inclusion’ mission is to provide “opportunities for individuals of all abilities to create, build, and strengthen relationships that will last a lifetime.” Photo credit: Antonio McClinon

McClinon turned his initial short commitment into one that has lasted more than six years. And things do not appear to be ending any time soon. Far from it as McClinon and his team are now dedicated to playing the long game with this one.

McClinon, along with Natalie Stagnone and Megan Parks, are the founders and directors of Thurston County Inclusion, a nonprofit organization founded in 2019 with the goal to bring youth ages 5 through 21, with and without intellectual disabilities, together for year-round engagement to support peer connections and relationships.

“During my senior year of high school, I was co-leading events with Natalie, like Bear Crew 2 meetings or MCing the Unified Assembly,” Parks said, “and I realized that we should make unified programs beyond high school and we could start a nonprofit organization.”

That led the trio to the summer of 2018 when they launched a summer camp with the support of a Youth Innovation grant from Special Olympics International. All three believed Olympia High School had positive and successful programs for students with intellectual disabilities during the school year, but what about over the summer months when there were no opportunities for connection?

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Thurston County Inclusion grew from the founders’ desire to offer year-round engagement to support peer connections and relationships. Photo credit: Antonio McClinon

From this thinking came a seven-week Unified Olympia Program summer camp, which brought together 18 participants and 55 volunteers. The event served as the blueprint for what would become Thurston County Inclusion.

“There are so many stories that I can share with you but the one thing that always sticks out is when the students are sharing their experiences with their peers at school,” McClinon said. “This tells me that the impact is real, and it is a need that will continue to grow into something special. I had a conversation with a former student who graduated from Olympia High and they shared with me the void they had after high school and needed to be connected to something. This conversation really put into perspective the need of having an organization like this.”

Thurston County Inclusion plans to hold a summer camp this summer. It is slated to be an eight-week program that will run every Friday with two sessions. The first session will be for younger participants and run from 9 a.m.-11 a.m., while the second session will be for older children, running 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Age ranges have yet to be determined for the sessions with volunteer opportunities and registration opening on May 15.

“As of right now, we are working to grow our community, so that people around Thurston County know about our organization,” McClinon added. “Therefore, we will be working on this growth and gathering donations leading up to our summer camp,” “After the summer camp, we will see what other events would be useful throughout the year and plan to expand our programs accordingly.”

According to McClinon, one main factor in founding a nonprofit was to make the program stainable, stating that in 10 years the goal would be to hire a full staff and run programs throughout the year.

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Some example programs Thurston County Inclusion will run include summer camps that are accessible and inclusive, programs to form mentorships between older and younger people with disabilities. Photo credit: Antonio McClinon

“I am most impressed with the enthusiasm and support that we have received from our community,” Stagnone said. “It is so exciting to talk to board members, peers, and Olympia community members and see them excited to get involved. I also believe that our organization is doing a wonderful job making sure that we have meaningful inclusion. This means that our board is representative of the community that we are working with and working in.”

“We have gotten very positive feedback thus far that Thurston County Inclusion will fill a missing resource in our community,” McClinon added. “We know that people are excited to participate and volunteer at our events.”

To learn more, including about upcoming camps, programs and events, visit the Thurston County Inclusion website.

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