Artsci’15 alumnus Justin Heenan with a student

Artsci grad’s love for Special Olympics started at Queen’s

Justin Heenan’s passion for working with individuals with Down Syndrome and the Special Olympics started during his third year of undergrad while at Queen’s University.

The Artsci’15 graduate grew up playing basketball and when he saw a volunteer opportunity to coach Special Olympics basketball, he thought it was good way to stay involved in the sport and learn new skills.

“After the first day of working with the Special Olympics, I decided I wanted to be a special ed teacher,” says Heenan, who is now doing that exact job with the Durham District School Board. “It was like a path opened up for me. It was the spirit of the athletes. If you have ever been to a Special Olympics event, (the athletes I work with) are so passionate about what they do. The energy just grabs you.”

Today, working with people with Down Syndrome and the Special Olympics are a big part of his life. He was named Special Olympics Ontario’s 2021 Educator of the Year and he has written two children’s books designed to promote awareness and inclusivity.

“I had this idea about creating children’s books about Down Syndrome because so many times when I was teaching, kids didn’t really know what it is,” says Heenan. “Awareness is the first step to inclusion. During the pandemic, I had a little more down time and was able to write those two books and put them out to the public last year.”

When he first started writing the books, he wanted them to be for young readers. He decided to make edits to ensure the book would also be a suitable resource for teachers, parents, librarians, and any other professionals who work with children with Down Syndrome.

The books are currently available on Amazon, as well as Teachers Pay Teachers, a website for instructors seeking classroom resources. Heenan currently uses them in his own classroom.

“The biggest thing is a lot of people don’t know much about Down Syndrome. However, I feel that people are afraid to ask,” Heenan says. “I think it is important for me to be open with the information and experiences I have in order to help educate my students and the public.”