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    Unified Gamecocks

    Everyone gets to play.

MPA student launches Special Olympics student organization at USC

For Keaton Bentley, a life of service was always the plan. Set to graduate from USC this May with his Master in Public Administration degree, Bentley has already secured his dream job in a director role for Special Olympics North Carolina. 

It’s a dream he’s been pursuing since he was just a teenager. 

“My family has always really emphasized the value of service, and in high school I had the opportunity to take a class called Integrated PE, where we worked alongside kids with intellectual disabilities,” Bentley says.

two men posing with Cocky at a an event
Cocky with Keaton Bentley (right) and co-worker Travis Luthren (left), a long time Special Olympics athlete and program associate at the state office. 

“It was the first time I felt like I was able to have an impact on someone else’s life while they also were impacting my life in such a significant way.”

His experience led him to get involved with Special Olympics, which hosts sporting and social events for individuals with intellectual disabilities. As an undergraduate at Colorado State University, Bentley became the president of the collegiate Special Olympics program, which further solidified his desire to turn his passion for service into a career. 

“I knew that my calling was to be in the public service sector,” he says. “And so, of course, I landed on the MPA, specifically to have skills in nonprofit work.” 

USC’s MPA program allowed Bentley to start his career while earning his master’s degree. After his first year in the program, he approached Special Olympics South Carolina about creating an internship position for him, which would allow him to satisfy his degree requirements while starting a collegiate Special Olympics program at USC. 

As soon as Bentley approached other student organizations, numerous people wanted to get involved. They formed a board, and the new group, the USC Special Olympics College Club, has grown to nearly 50 members. Other student groups on campus got involved, too, supporting the organization through partnerships and fundraising. 

They call themselves the “Unified Gamecocks,” recalling the Special Olympics’ mission to host “Unified Sports,” in which people with and without intellectual disabilities play alongside each other. They recently held their first official event, a game of kickball for students and community members.

“It brings more of a community aspect, versus just the ‘we’re here to help,’ aspect,” Bentley says. “We’re trying to bring inclusion to campus at USC and unite people with and without intellectual disabilities, both on and off campus.”

It was the first time I felt like I was able to have an impact on someone else’s life while they also were impacting my life in such a significant way.

- Keaton Bentley

Bentley says working toward his MPA was instrumental in equipping him with the skills to successfully start the club.

“The MPA program taught me to effectively communicate with like-minded organizations that have now all helped to bring this nonprofit cause to fruition,” he says. “And now Unified Gamecocks is going to be a sustainable club when I graduate, which was my overarching goal for it.”

Launching the club for his internship also gave Bentley the chance to prove he can put his education into action as a leader in the nonprofit sector. He credits the combination of education and experience with helping him land his job. 

“When it comes to Special Olympics, I can talk about the sports and the amazing memories you create all day long. But when it comes down to that administrative side, because of the MPA, now I have all the tools and skills to fulfill a director role,” he says. 

In May, Bentley starts as Special Olympics North Carolina’s Director of Inclusive Schools for the city of Greensboro. He will create Special Olympics programming and education in the Greensboro education system, from K-12 through collegiate. 

It’s just the beginning for Bentley, who has confidence that he’ll excel in the nonprofit world thanks to his experience at USC. 

“The MPA provided me the ability to work in a nonprofit and still be successful, without having to sacrifice the potential to earn a good living,” he says. “I am going to have a successful career in something I love.”

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