Yorkville University alumnus Justin Heenan was recently named Special Olympic Ontario’s 2021 Educator of the Year.
The Ajax, Ontario native, who graduated from Yorkville’s Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology program in 2020, said he was “blown away” when he discovered he’d been singled out for the honour.
“It was unbelievable and I’m so flattered. Obviously, it’s not why I volunteer – I volunteer because I want to help these student athletes and their families,” Heenan said of his work with the organization, which uses sport to promote respect, acceptance, inclusion, and human dignity for people with intellectual disabilities.
“To be recognized for something like this, it’s a tremendous honour and I was blown away… I certainly don’t volunteer for any sort of accolade, but it’s always nice to be recognized for your hard work.”
A lifelong athlete himself, Heenan first got involved with the Special Olympics back in 2013, while studying French and Spanish at Queen’s University.
As an aspiring teacher, he was looking for opportunities to get more involved in his new community in Kingston at the time, so he jumped at the chance to sign up as a Special Olympics volunteer when he came across an ad seeking coaches for a local high school basketball team.
“I put in my resume and went through the application process, and I haven’t looked back since,” he laughed.
“I remember from that first day, I quickly recognized that it was something I was really going to enjoy. As a student, it gave me something to look forward to – to go help those students with special needs.”
It was also that initial experience with the organization, Heenan said, that inspired him to not only pursue his teaching degree from Trent University, but also his Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville.
“It made me realize I had a strong interest in mental health, specifically mental health for our students with special needs – so our kids with autism and Down syndrome. I wanted to learn how to incorporate mental health strategies into our schools and into our communities to support these students,” said Heenan, who attributes much of my success as both a special education teacher and Special Olympics volunteer to what he learned at Yorkville University.
Now working as a full-time special education teacher for the Durham District School Board, an instructor for Trent University’s School of Education, and as a psychotherapist with his own private practice in Whitby, Heenan said his commitment to his volunteer work with the Special Olympics hasn’t wavered despite his busy schedule.
He continues to be involved with the organization both in school and out in the community – running a Special Olympics Walking Club at Grove School, organizing Sports Festivals in elementary schools in his community, and running an Active Start and FUNdamentals group for two- to six-year-olds and seven- to 12-year-olds.
Moving forward, Heenan said that, no matter where his career in education and psychotherapy may take him, he’s certain his volunteer work with the Special Olympics will remain a top priority.
“Wherever I may end up – whether I become a principal, or I work at a university, or I continue to work as a special ed teacher – the one thing I know for sure is I’ll still be volunteering with the Special Olympics,” he said.
“I’ve gained so many valuable skills from them – I’ve improved my public speaking abilities and my ability to understand mental health, special education and teaching. It’s a tremendous organization.”