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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unified tournament gives players of all stripes and abilities chance to represent their school

On a goal-oriented afternoon, the biggest point was made on the sideline.

As one of her soccer players sobbed on the bench, University High School special education teacher Samantha Kern gave her a pat on the shoulder – and so much more.

While Sarah rubbed her injured right foot, Kern leaned in and said quietly, “Don’t worry, we’re always here for you.”

Were they ever.

On a sunny Wednesday at Rogers High School, it seemed that everyone was there for Sarah, her U-Hi teammates and dozens of other players at the Unified Soccer District Tournament.

While a parent fetched ice for Sarah’s foot, Kern urged her players on in a match against Mt. Spokane. Players from both teams got a helping hand or foot from non-disabled “partners” – the same kids they see in the hallways every day.

For partner Nicole Livingston, a sophomore at Central Valley, the payoff is “helping them have fun.”

“This definitely builds a little bit of community with the same kids you see at school,” said Livingston, whose older brother served in the program for four years.

On the sidelines, family and friends cheered their favorite players, most of whom were competing for a spot in the state tournament – just like the varsity teams at every school.

“The awesome things about it is that it’s treated like any other sport,” said Morgan Larche, director of Unified Schools for Special Olympics Washington.

“A lot of these kids don’t play on the high school varsity, JV or C teams … here they get to represent their school and wear their school uniform,” said Larche, who also oversees Unified teams in basketball, cheerleading, flag football, bowling and robotics.

The program was launched almost a decade ago, but Mt. Spokane parent Tawnya Rux and her 16-year-old daughter Phoebe didn’t learn about it until last winter, in a chance encounter at the grocery store.

“One of the other moms said, ‘Have you heard about this program?’” Rux said.

Rux and her husband Troy took it from there. After signups in February, Phoebe and her teammates competed in a league with the same teams they faced Wednesday.

In Unified Soccer, a standard-sized field is divided into fourths and games last 30 minutes. Teams are five-a-side, with three players and two volunteer partners who help guide their teammates.

For Tawyna Rux, the inclusiveness of Unified Soccer “has so humbled me and showed me that I could do so much better in dealing with all those things that have become so annoying.

“It’s pretty amazing. These coaches and kids are giving up their time, and they respect these kids – they’re peers, not babysitters.”

Now in her third year at CV, Kern was familiar with the program and was hired.

“When I saw that the Unified program was an option, I jumped right in and I’ve loved it ever since,” Kern said.

“This has been such a great opportunity for these kids,” Kern said.