There has been a lot of basketball games played in the gymnasium at Dr. J. H. Gillis Regional High School, but never one quite like the contest Dec. 15.
A first for the Strait Regional School Board (SRSB), the Regional played host to a Unified Sports basketball game that featured 44 students from Dr. J.H. Gillis and Strait Area Education Recreation Centre (SAERC).
“Unified Sports is a program through Special Olympics that supports an increase in physical activity for all participants and provides students, of varying abilities, an opportunity to experience team sports,” a SRSB release, about the game, noted.
“Unified Sports promotes acceptance, respect and human dignity for all students and social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. The program is inspired by a simple principle; training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. As the Special Olympics website states, Unified Sports is built upon the premise that, in order to have the greatest impact, the change process needs to start with youth.”
Coming together to organize the game, and program leading up to it, were youth services facilitator teacher at SAERC Beth MacDonald, physical education/fitness leadership teacher Jamie Lawlor-MacInnis and Joan Conrad who is the youth services facilitator at Dr. J.H. Gillis.
“Jamie, Joan and I initially contacted Special Olympics and, through Special Olympics, they connected us with the equipment and the programming we needed to start this program,” MacDonald said, talking to reporters following the game.
“It was through Tom Fahey, at Special Olympics, and, from there, the students really step-up and were the leaders in terms of starting the program and running the practices … getting everything organized. It has been a real team effort on all fronts.”
Conrad described the game, which was scene-after-scene of one player assisting another to score a basket to the sound of loud cheers, no matter which team scored, as “awesome.”
“It was everything we could have imagined and better,” she said. “Everyone was so excited; we had a lot of nervousness and excitement about the upcoming game and then everyone played so well together, it was awesome … it couldn’t have gone better.”
The players agreed.
“I think it was great,” Elizabeth Morgan from SAERC said. “Just to see how excited everyone was for everyone on the court, no matter which team. It was awesome to watch and be part of.”
“It was an excellent game; everyone played extremely well,” Josh Stewart, also from SAERC said, adding if he had the chance to participate again, he definitely would.
“I thought it was good because everyone was so nice to one another,” Melissa Delorey, from Dr. J.H. Gillis, said. “It wasn’t really competitive; it was all of us having fun.”
“It was really good,” fellow Dr. J.H. Gillis student Lauchlin Delorey said with a wide-smile, a testament to the excitement and fun he had just experienced.
“The energy of the game was more about supporting each other and making sure everyone got a chance to participate,” Dr. J.H. Gillis student Sarah Murrin said.
“It wasn’t about winning so, I think, it was a really good experience for everyone.”
And it was an experience organizers hope to repeat later this year.
“I think the plan is for us to host a game at SAERC and, hopefully, it will evolve to other schools now that we’ve started this,” MacDonald said. “That’s the plan, and we might try other sports as well … that is something we might do.”
“It’s a program that was started by Special Olympics and it’s nation-wide, actually,” Conrad added.
“Matt Quinn, at the provincial office, has gone around to all the schools to talk to teachers and build interest. It’s really growing; it has grown really quickly and is just so much fun.”
Conrad said all students were just given the opportunity to get involved.
“We just put out a poll about who wants to play,” she said.
“If they were willing to come to practice during lunch-times, you have to give up your lunch, but if you want to play you can come and play. I think this game today will make it [the interest] even more so; everything went so well today they’ll want to play more.”
Following the game, the student-athletes, their parents/guardians, along with school staff and some SRSB staff and board members, attended a social; a chance to congratulate the students on their impressive efforts.
The SRSB release notes the overall goals of Unified Sports: more students with intellectual disabilities participating in physical activity; more students with and without intellectual disabilities playing sports together; students without disabilities hold more positive attitudes towards their peers with intellectual disabilities; school communities of acceptance where students with intellectual disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in and feel part of all school activities, opportunities and functions; perception of Special Olympics as a school and community partner that offers programming that benefits all students; and creating a new generation of youth leaders.
For more information, visit the Special Olympics website and check out www.playunified.org/.