New sports program highlights social inclusion

Mountain Range High School Mustang Nirvana Maldonado runs through a fan-filled tunnel after her name is announced during the first unified basketball game on April 8 at Westminster High School. The Mustangs took on the Horizon Hawks in front of a packed gym. Photo by Ashley Reimers

For the first time in the Adams 12 Five Star School District, student athletes and students with disabilities came together on one court, competing in a unified basketball game on April 8. In front of a packed gym, the Mountain Range Mustangs, the home team, took on the Horizon Hawks in a game where winning wasn’t the most important thing. Instead, the goal focused on inclusion and teamwork.

The game was the first of five in the new Unified Sports Program in Adams 12. Collaborating with the Colorado Special Olympics, the athletic department and student support services worked for a year to integrate the program and offer a co-ed basketball league that consists of teams from all five comprehensive high schools made up of students with and without disabilities.

Eddie Hartnett, director of district athletics and activities for Adams 12, said the Unified Sports Program is a nationally renowned program found in many other districts in and out of Colorado. He said the program is dedicated to social inclusion through shared sports trainings and competitive experiences.

“We are really excited to have the program in the district,” he said. “It’s been quite the learning experience or all of us, the students, administration and the coaches. But the program is also impacting all of us at the same time. It’s been very positive.”

Hartnett said it’s really special to see the student athletes work one-on-one with the students with disabilities.

“As these student athletes work with their teammates with disabilities, they are learning life skills like compassion, empathy and understanding,” he said. “And for the students with disabilities, they are able to be part of their school and represent their school in way they’ve never had the opportunity to do before.”

Mindy Watrous, president and CEO of Special Olympics Colorado, was impressed with the debut game at Mountain Range, especially with the amount of student support shown for both teams. She said it’s been fantastic working with Adams 12 to start a Unified Sports Program and gives the district credit for their hard work in implementing and supporting the program. With a focus on inclusion, Watrous said the program in Adams 12 will bring student body together.

“This program really changes the culture within a school and also reduces bullying,” she said. “It teaches students that everyone has their own special, unique gift. And many times student athletes realize that they are more like their teammates with disabilities than they are different.”

Horizon junior Josh Ralphs joined the unified team because he wanted to help other students have the same opportunities he has in his school when it comes to athletics. After the first game, he was excited about the opportunity and is looking forward to more games.

“The game went really well and better than I expected,” he said. “I had a lot of fun. I can’t wait for the other games.”