More St. Vrain high schools adopt unified sports

“Heartwarming” is not usually the first word that comes to mind when people think of high school team sports.

But there is a new game in town – “unified sports” – and its collaborative approach is enriching student life, and entire school communities in Erie, Frederick, Mead and Longmont High Schools.

Instead of guts, glory and trophies, think cooperation, generosity and even selflessness. The players – students with special needs – are shadowed during games and practice by nondisabled student “partners” who are there solely to coach and encourage them.

Silver Creek High School launched the first unified sports program in the district in 2013 followed by Mead in 2015. Erie, Longmont and Frederick High schools launched the program this season and are off to a great start.

“It gives special needs kids a chance to get involved in athletics, and it provides opportunities for education and lifelong lessons outside of the classroom,” Jeremy Burmeister, Longmont High School athletic director, said.

For Burmeister, these all-important life lessons include teamwork, responsibility and accountability, and time management.

“There are also leadership opportunities for the partners involved to work with special needs students,” he said. Partners often have an athletic background, he noted, but it is not required.

For Alexander Santucci, captain of the Longmont High School varsity soccer team and track competitor, the volunteer partner experience has quickly gifted him some “amazing” moments.

“For me, the smile and energy the players put off right when they score is probably the best thing about being part of the unified basketball program. You know you are bringing joy into their life,” he said. “It is really neat and exciting to be a part of this program.”

While the Special Olympics website states that unified sports is for kids with intellectual disabilities, within St. Vrain Valley Schools, participation is open to any student with an individual education plan (IEP).

According to Carrie Adams, Silver Creek Leadership Academy program director, students with IEPs can present a wide range of conditions, everything from autism and Down syndrome to learning disabilities and physical challenges.

All of these diverse students, who most likely would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in team sports, are eligible to play, she said.

Adams is enthusiastic about her first season as Silver Creek High School’s unified basketball coach for a 12-member team, including seven players with disabilities.

According to the rules, she said, three special needs players are accompanied on the court by two supporting partners at all times.  Adams’ team practices twice a week for an hour, and plays one game a week from January through March.

While this is a lighter schedule than that of CHSAA basketball, unified sports nonetheless has a strong impact.

“Without a doubt, Mead High School is a much better place to be as a result of the unified program,” Chad Eisentrager, athletic director and assistant principal, said.

“It is going phenomenally – the football team has 17 kids and basketball has 16,” he said. “It does a ton for the climate of the school. It has brought kids together, and it has created an environment where our CHSAA athletes are going to the U-games.”

Playing in front of their peers has been great for the players’ confidence, Eisentrager said, and has helped these kids feel that “they are part of the group.”

For Adams, the giving atmosphere at a unified game can be deeply affecting.

“The partners that are volunteering their time, they are just awesome kids. When you see a game, it sort of renews your hope in humanity,” Adams said.

Adams described how when one team makes a basket, the other team “high-fives” them.

“It takes that competitive thing and makes it so positive and so fun, everybody is cheering. You cannot walk away from that and not feel like, ‘Oh, life is good. There are decent people on the planet.’ It is powerful,” she said.

Adams said that there are area unified basketball tournaments as well as a state championship.

But of course, when it comes to unified sports, the biggest wins happen every day.