WHS Unified Team Offers Opportunities for Youth (Photo)
Grant Lewis and Nathan Odenthal
Playing youth sports and being a part of team competition provides life lessons that extend far beyond the play field. Now that Special Olympics Washington Unified Sports has come to Clark County, there are opportunities for high school students with special needs to have the experience of being on a team and playing competitive sports.
The Unified Sports model combines Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as teammates on sport teams for training and competition. The Unified Team provides students an opportunity to use sports as a way to bond, create friendships and working together as a team.
Washougal Teacher Dani Allen began coaching the Unified soccer team at Washougal High School last spring and is now coaching the new basketball team. "Being a part of this program has been life changing," she said. "It is touching on so many levels. These kids are able to build friendships and camaraderie that you just can't do in the classrooms. Some of what you see can bring you to tears. The sportsmanship, the athletes, the partners' interaction. It's amazing." Allen taught Special Education for 15 years, with seven of those in Washougal. She started at Hathaway Elementary and then taught at WHS. She is currently the art teacher at Jemtegaard Middle School.
"It has been great to play basketball," said team athlete and WHS senior, Shawn Fredericksen. "We have a positive attitude and work together. It is fun being a part of a team."
Fredericksen also gave credit to his coaches. "I like my coaches," he said. "They are fun and teach us new things. We are getting better each week."
Allen is helped by assistant coaches Lin and Greg Guiles of Washougal. "They are an important part of the program," said Allen. "I am not sure what I'd do without them!"
"Being on the team provides surprising benefits and life lessons for these kids," said Allen. "Like having to have their uniform washed and ready for games or to remember to bring shoes and clean shorts and shirts with you to school on practice days. Those are responsibilities these kids are having to step up to."
The team members also enjoy recognition at school during morning announcements that tell about the games and posters on the wall with their names on them. "Being on a team is a huge self-esteem booster for these students," said Allen. "And the interaction with the general education kids who help as partners is positive and great to watch."
WHS junior, Tyler Bowlin, got involved as a partner on the Unified team at the recommendation of a friend. "I'm glad I got involved. It is really fun to come out and help these kids who genuinely want to be here and try hard," he said. "What we are doing is all for the athletes. It is not for the partners to better ourselves in the sport. It feels good to help the athletes gain self-confidence so they see they are just as good as everyone else. The amount of happiness that shows in their face when they make a shot is just amazing. It's a great feeling for everyone."
"We have good spirit, we fight hard, and have team work," said WHS senior athlete, Mikey Nuketuk. "To not give up and to have a positive attitude are the most important parts to the game. We have a good team. We try our best and we all pushed hard. But you don't always win."
Although the players are working to win, there is a high emphasis on sportsmanship. In a game against Camas in January, a Camas athlete made a basket and came to the Washougal bench to celebrate. "Our whole team cheered and gave him high fives," said Allen. "It was awesome."
Allen has been struck by the pride the families are showing for their student athletes. "Some parents are seeing skills that they had not known their child had," commented Allen. "One parent commented that they did not know their son could run so fast. This is first time many of these students have participated in an organized sport programs and had their parents on the side line cheering them on. The parents are very supportive."
"My family thinks that is it cool that I am playing basketball," said Fredericksen. "And they know it is fun for me to be with my friends."
The WHS team has competed at several tournaments and its next is Saturday, February 6 at Kelso High School and then February 13 at Prairie High School. One of the challenges is to get fans in the stands at these games. "We are planning to do a scrimmage during a high school game half time or during a pep assembly," Allen said. She also commented that after the WHS cheerleaders attended a Unified game one of the squad members commented, "Everyone needs to see this." The games are free to attend.
Unified Sports compete in two divisions. Division one are those teams that are very competitive and division two are more recreational players. Washougal started with a single team but has grown to have a team in both division. Camas also has a team in each division.
According to Allen, Special Olympics helps with funding through a $2,000 grant for equipment and uniforms. WSD Special Education pays the rest. The coaching is all volunteer and there is no fee for students.