“Unified sports establish foundations for young people to interact with individuals they might not normally interact with. It also allows the students that have disabilities to participate fully in sports and get respect without any sort of barrier,” said Kathleen Kelley, an Oyster River High School paraeducator and assistant coach of all unified sports teams.
Oyster River High School has seventeen New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) verified sports, with three of these being unified teams. Unified athletics are an opportunity that not all schools in New Hampshire provide, but the program presents valuable opportunities for the student body. Because of this, the program and the sports teams have significantly grown in numbers within the past few years at ORHS.
As of now, the unified team has a range of ten to eleven athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Along with this, the team is comprised of other student-athletes, who are referred to as partners. This year, there has been a record high of fifteen partners.
Sam Belanger (‘19), who is one of these partners, has noticed this, saying: “ever since I started playing two years ago, involvement in unified has taken off. More and more students are choosing to be a part of it.”
This growth is evident with six new participants joining soccer and basketball since last year.
In hopes to see even more involvement, this spring’s seasonal sport has been changed from track and field to volleyball. Andy Lathrop, the ORHS Athletic Director, expanded upon this, saying, “changing the spring sport to volleyball was due to the fact that there was not the participation in track that was expected and by changing it, we are hoping to see more numbers.”
More students have been getting involved because Oyster River’s unified sports foster inclusive atmospheres and allow for the athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their partners to create meaningful relationships.
Hannah Proulx (‘21) is one of the unified athletes and discussed her love of unified as, “having the opportunity to play with and connect with people with intellectual disabilities and people who don’t have disabilities.”
Lathrop supported this statement, saying, “having unified has created this positive atmosphere, which has contributed to school spirit and people showing genuine interest in other students and their interests, as well as interest in their lives.”
According to Special Olympics’ website under the “Sports and Games” tab, unified sports is a nationwide program whose primary mission is inclusion. The website also noted that unified athletics are an integral part of Special Olympics USA and that there are 4,500 elementary, middle, and high schools in the country that have a unified program.
This mission of inclusion is evident at ORHS. As noted by Kelley, “the encouragement that is shown and the skills that the partners share teach the athletes how to improve. The comradery that has developed has also been unbelievable to witness.”
The program all started seven years ago when Steve Lord, a former special educator at ORHS, created the program (not to be confused with Stephen Lord, the former French teacher, who is profiled by Carola Davis in this current issue). After Lord retired, other paraeducators and faculty have continued his mission and have become involved. As of now, the head coach of all of the unified teams is Alexander Satterfield, a current special educator at ORHS.
Satterfield said that he started coaching and has continued to be involved because: “coaching unified aligns with my philosophy. I feel that offering unified sports gives everyone a unique opportunity to get outside of their bubble and experience part of their life differently.”
Alongside Satterfield, partner Kelsey McCrone (‘19) has participated in unified sports for the past two years. McCrone noted: “the reason that I continue to play unified sports is because the genuine relationships that I have built with the players are important to both me and the athletes.”
Similarly to McCrone, Belanger stated: “unified has been an incredible experience. I have been able to forge new friendships that I never would have expected by having lots of fun and playing soccer.” He added: “I have also become close with several of the athletes, which is main reason why I’ve wanted to keep playing.”
Not only has unified provided opportunities for those involved, it has also improved the entire athletic program. Lathrop expanded upon this, saying, “unified has helped the athletic program because it has created a sense of school unity and brings kids together that might not necessarily be together. Anytime you have that opportunity, and if athletics can provide that, I think it’s great.”
Kelley mentioned that she notices this as she walks through the hallways and witnesses the athletes high fiving or talking with their partners.
These strong connections and the athletes’ hard work have made the program more successful. This past fall, the unified soccer team made it all the way to semi-finals in playoffs for the first time. Belanger talked about this, saying, “we were motivated to do our best as helpers seeing how hard the athletes worked each day and how much they enjoyed the game. Their positivity is what really fueled us this past season.”
This exposure and participation in unified will help both the athletes and the partners going forward. Kelley mentioned, “having unified is so important because throughout the rest of your life, you are going to be interacting with people from all different backgrounds and abilities and to be a successful person, you need to know how to interact with people, step outside of your comfort zone, and open to opportunities to interact with people you might not normally interact with.” She continued, saying, “from that comes growth, understanding, compassion, empathy, and for unified sports, an opportunity to have a lot of fun.”
Written by Abby Schmitt
Photos by Brenda Worden