Unified Sports shoots for inclusivity

It’s a hot Friday afternoon, and students across campus are filing out of their classrooms for the cafeteria, the quad, or perhaps to the basketball courts for Unified Sports practice. Every Friday, general and special education students come together to practice soccer, kickball or basketball. With the next Unified Sports event just two weeks away, the participants and coaches alike are filled with excitement. 

With the assistance of Jenny Finger, junior, and other volunteers, the program took off last year. Their first major competition, the Unified Basketball Tournament in March 2019, involved Thousand Oaks and Westlake High School as well. However, this is the first time kickball and soccer will be included, as well as the possibility of schools outside the district. “This year, we expanded it to three sports, and each school is hosting a tournament,” Anne Alvarez, Special Education teacher, said. “Eventually, we want to make it so we go to more tournaments, so we go over to play Simi, to play Oxnard, and then maybe we’ll have a big tournament where lots and lots of schools come.” 

Volunteer coaches Rich Bradley and Michael Contreras, teachers at NPHS, may have only become fully involved this school year, but their passion for the program is evident. “My biggest takeaway is seeing the joy on those kids’ faces,” Contreras said. “I look forward to Friday at lunch, knowing I’m going to be with them. Now that they know me a little bit better, the high fives that I get, the hellos’ I get, stuff like that really brightens my day.” 

The positive impact of the program on both the kids involved and coaches alike is indisputable. “They’re just so happy with the experience, and to be out there. Things that other people take for granted, like being able to kick a ball, and the joy they get out of that really makes you appreciate your own circumstances even more,” Bradley said. 

The combination of disabled and non-disabled athletes coming together to play on a team is monumental to fostering an inclusive environment at Newbury Park. “(The objective of Unified Sports is) to show our kids that they can be a part of the school, and show the rest of the school that everybody can be a part of the school, and be involved with anything they want to be involved with at their level,” Alvarez said. 

As the program continues to grow, the friendships made between all the students strengthen in turn. “It’s not just that the general education students go out there and coach. Seeing the interactions in the hallways, the high fives walking across campus, the inclusion,” said Contreras. “It doesn’t matter who; they make sure that they say hi to each other and sometimes introduce them to their friends. That’s something I think that’s really, really special about the program.”

In the weeks leading up to the tournament on February 7, Finger has high hopes for the team. “I hope that our team will learn more sports skills and really bond with each other,” Finger said.  “It’s the best feeling seeing everyone included and happy.”

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