On Saturday, the soccer fields at Mead High School looked just like the fields at schools all across the city. Students in team jerseys dribbled soccer balls while shouts of “Goal!” and “Pass the ball!” rang out. Parents and friends bundled up against the chilly wind, and refs in yellow and black, blew whistles.
But these teams are part of Unified Sports, a program sponsored by Special Olympics Washington. The program is designed to promote inclusion by combining people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams.
Patrick Bryant, northeast regional manager for Project Unify and Unified Sports, said, “We started in Seattle a little over three years ago. This is the first year we’ve developed it in Spokane, and we have five out of eight 4A schools participating.”
Across Eastern Washington 300 schools are involved in the program, including Mt. Spokane, University, Central Valley and Rogers high schools, he said. “We’ve got plenty of room for more schools to join.”
The response at Mead has been overwhelmingly positive, said special education teacher Deanna Ganea. “When I put the partner (sign-up) table out, we were totally overwhelmed with help.”
They play five-on-five soccer and each team has three general education students (partners) and two special education students. “The partners are on the field not to coach them, but to play with them,” Ganea said.
At a recent practice, senior Madeleine Leslie said she enjoys being a partner. “You get to see them score goals. They are so happy.”
Disabled Learning Center student James Hill, 17, grinned nearby. “Yep. I make a lot of goals – like, up to three! But I like to help the other people out and give them a chance to play, too.”
“This is all new to him,” said his mom, Rita Hill. “He’s never played soccer before.”
He’s not the only one. While some DLC students may have played soccer, for all of them this is the first experience of being part of a school sports team.
“They love that they get real jerseys,” said senior Anna Kessler, a partner on the team.
Indeed, after the program launch, one of Ganea’s students ran up to her on the sideline wearing his Mead jersey and asked, “Mrs. G., are we Panthers, now?”
Head coach Nate Pelton, who’s also a special education teacher, is delighted by the response the program has received. “The best thing has been the reception from parents, the community and fellow staff members,” he said. “We’ve had 50 to 100 fans at every game.”
At Saturday’s game, a group of teens on the sidelines cheered as Bryce Lewellen, 19, scored a goal. When asked if they were family members, one young man answered, “No. We’re just here to support the team.”
Lewellen flashed a grin when he heard them shout his name, but then tapped his wrist and yelled, “C’mon guys, more goals!” Time was running out and Lewellen wanted a Panther win.
“This is such a neat program,” said his mother, Jill Lewellen. “These kids can participate in a high school sport and be part of the team.”
She has three disabled sons. “The only thing my oldest son was able to do was be a team manager,” she said.
Enthusiastic community response to the Unified Sports program means more opportunities for athletes in the future. Next year basketball will be added and the following year, organizers are hoping to add flag football.
“Disabled students will have the opportunity to play a sport every season,” Patrick Bryant said. Something many high school students take for granted.
For teachers Ganea and Pelton, it’s been heartwarming to see their students enjoy an opportunity previously unavailable to them. “This gives them another part of high school to be involved in,” Ganea said.
“The biggest thing we’ve seen is the confidence it’s built in our students,” Pelson said. “They proudly wear their team jerseys to school.”
And that’s the goal of Unified Sports. “It’s the best possible learning environment for all students,” Special Olympics’ Bryant said. “Disabled students gain confidence and other students gain awareness and understanding.”