Smiles, laughing, high fives, fun and friendship surrounded the Unified Sports Soccer games Saturday, April 22 at South Sound Stadium in Lacey. Local south sound high schools from Black Hills, Olympia, North Thurston, River Ridge, Timberline, Tumwater and Yelm started the 2023 Spring Unified Sports soccer season with competition that will continue during the April and May. The Unified Sports program partners with Special Olympics as athletes with intellectual disabilities compete in various activities including clubs, fundraisers, inclusion campaigns, robotics and year-round sports like basketball and soccer.
The athletes play small field six-on-six competitions working with high school partner students to compete in mini games. Besides fun and building social skills for the students, one of the goals is for inclusion and acceptance to extend beyond the bounds of the high schools and out into the community.
Aerial Edwards, one of the coaches for the North Thurston Unified team, praised the ability of the Unified Sports model and how it brings people together with and without disabilities onto the same team. “Unified Sports positively impacts both the athletes and the partners on the team by promoting meaningful social connections, acceptance and inclusion of everyone,” Edwards noted when asked about the program. “It also promotes an environment of positive competition where the most important aspect of the game is the fun that the students have.”
Timberline coach Eric Cannan also talked about the ability of the program to connect with the community. “Through the practices, team meetings, and games, all participants gain perspective on and enrich the experiences of their teammates,” remarked Cannan. “My fellow coaches, Amy Shaffer, Cynthia Burnes, Jacy Frankford and William Cannon love connecting our athletes with the partners and the community.”
Ashley Hollinger coaches at River Ridge High School and started helping with Unified Sports during her time as a high school student. Hollinger loves how Unified Sports has influenced the students at Ridge. “Our program is all about inclusion and that really shines throughout the program and through the school. Now I get to coach, which is pretty awesome,” Hollinger stated. “Our team is roughly made of newer partners and athletes and it has been great seeing them all get to know one another and become a team. One thing that is awesome is that the partners have been great at showing up and being helpful as well as forming relationships with athletes not just in Unified but at school. It’s nice to see our athletes and partners having lunch together and hanging out before school or in between classes.”
For more information on Unified Sports at North Thurston Schools and how you can support or visit an upcoming game contact NTPS via the Unified sports page.