Thank you to Drew Wynn, Student Activities Coordinator at Bayside Middle School, for sharing their Play Unified story!
Last year, our student body president came to me with an enthusiastic request. She wanted our school to get involved with Special Olympics. Feeding off of her excitement I decided to contact the local Special Olympics office to see what we could do. To be honest, at this point we weren’t quite thinking outside of the box. The call was mostly to see how we could donate portions of a school fundraiser or how our students could volunteer at a few local events. After talking with our Area Coordinator for Special Olympics for a few minutes it became clear that there was an opportunity to do so much more. This is where I first heard about Unified Sports. The Unified Sports concept was created by Special Olympics to promote social inclusion through sports. It is an amazing concept which allows students with and without intellectual disabilities to participate in athletics together. If you aren’t familiar with the program, any quick research will show you how special these programs are and how big of an impact they make in their communities.
Many of our students with intellectual disabilities have never been part of a team, stayed after school for an activity, or have had much interaction with the general education students in our schools. Unified Sports programs are giving these students an experience of a lifetime, a chance to build relationships and be part of a team. Students with and without intellectual disabilities are changed forever as a result of these programs that showcase so many positive attributes associated with athletics.
Last year, we were able to implement a Unified Basketball League in Virginia Beach in partnership with Special Olympics. Five of our local middle schools participated in the inaugural season. Games were conducted just like regular season basketball games. Players got to experience being on a middle school basketball team. For the first time in their lives they were able to experience player introductions, high fives on the court, cheers from the crowd and encouragement from coaches and teammates. Large crowds came out each night to show support and create an encouraging environment.
Programs like this are offered all over the country and throughout Virginia. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) has helped implement unified track & field programs in more than 49 high schools across the state. As of last year, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) offers an excellent free course available for coaching Unified Sports. It is an exciting and rewarding experience for those who get involved. I encourage you to research Unified Sports to see the immense impact that programs are having on students and communities. We are excited to have a middle school session on Unified Sports in partnership with the Special Olympics at the 2019 Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (VIAAA) conference in Norfolk. Hopefully we can bring more attention to Unified Sports and create more life changing opportunities through athletics for our students with intellectual disabilities