Until recently, a selection of the Mead student body didn’t have the opportunity to don the high school’s navy blue and gold uniforms with a Panther on the chest.
Seven years ago, Mead athletic director John Barrington and a contingent of teachers formed the unified sports program.
Unified sports is a program that promotes inclusion by bringing together students with intellectual disabilities with partners without those disabilities through sport and education-related activities.
Under their guidance, the unified sports program – in conjunction with Special Olympics Washington – became one of the first in the Spokane area. There are now a half-dozen schools with an annual program and several others that take advantage when they have athletes to participate.
The Mead School District is home to two of those schools, as Mt. Spokane also participates in the program.
“Mead’s goal is to create a sense of belonging and a climate where students with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in and feel a part of all activities, opportunities and functions,” said DeAnna Ganea, one of the school’s unified sports organizers.
When the idea was first presented to Barrington, the school had no extra funding for teachers, uniforms or equipment. But the idea of unified sports was immediately recognized as valuable to the special education program. After a short research period, it was implemented.
Student-athletes and partners participate together in soccer and basketball. For these athletes, the chance to practice, travel and compete as a team provides exercise and helps instill a sense of pride – but is also instrumental in their development.
Mark Dudash’s daughter Grace has been involved in the program for two years. He was a letter winner in basketball in high school and he was thrilled for the chance unified sports offers his daughter.
“I have seen a growth in Grace the last two years because of this, and that has been pretty special to watch,” he said. “I see confidence, I see teamwork and it is just a great feeling.”
The Dudash family relocated to Spokane in 2006. Mark said the decision to enroll Grace in the Mead School District, starting with preschool, was the best he made as a parent. He attributed his thinking to how hands-on and involved the teachers have been with Grace.
“As a parent of a daughter with special needs, it is enlightening, it is exciting – you’re full of pride,” he said. “And that’s just the parents. I can’t imagine what the kids are feeling.”
Along with Special Olympics Washington, Mead relies on teachers, including Ganea, Nicole Leslie, Mark Shulkin and Brandon Butler, to coach and facilitate the program.
“It takes the entire coaching staff to be willing to make it work. We have great coaches and the (partners) are great,” Ganea said. “So it’s really fun to see both sides, because it is just as fulfilling for the partners that participate.”
All the teachers take time outside of their normal schedules to help coach and promote the benefits of unified sports.
“These teachers, they have a full day, but they’re willing to stay after school and coach and do that,” Dudash said. “It’s just a wonderful thing.”
The unified games are usually scheduled between the girls and boys varsity games. This gives the athletes a full crowd to play in front of – as well as full support from the cheerleaders and band.
“It’s just so nice to see the looks on their faces, and seeing them being proud to put on the jersey and feel like they belong,” Ganea said.
On top of that, the varsity coaches at Mead allot practice time throughout the season so the unified team has a time and place to prepare for upcoming games.
With the success of the program, Dudash hopes more schools add unified teams. The current scheduling availabilities are limited.
But the light schedules didn’t prevent Mead from competing at the unified basketball district championship at the Hub in Liberty Lake on Feb. 5. The Panthers took home first place, earning every athlete and partner a medal – and a lifetime memory.
“It was exciting,” Ganea said. “They got a warm welcome when they came to school the next day and took pictures with their medals and (were mentioned) during the morning announcements. It was exciting for them.”
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