On Friday mornings this winter at Arapahoe High School, the gym was full of students coaching and playing basketball with their peers with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
The program, Unified Basketball, exists at all three Littleton public high schools to bring students with special needs together with other students to play sports and develop friendships.
This school year, all four district middle schools also started Unified teams.
The impact of Unified
As an athlete, Arapahoe senior Milana Rosazza values sports and believes everyone deserves the opportunity to play. When she got injured and could not play soccer last year, she joined Unified Basketball.
As a coach for the team, she runs drills and coaches games for students who receive special needs support. Aside from coaching, some students participate in the Unified team as “peers” who join the athletes on-court.
In her role, Rosazza sees what a difference the program makes for the athletes and for students like herself.
“I’ve participated in a lot of things at school… but none of those compare to how Unified sports has affected me,” she said.
Allison Rooney, a special education teacher and one of the Unified program staff sponsors at Arapahoe, said the program is incredibly valuable to the students who practice with and coach Unified athletes.
“It’s such a great opportunity for our typical peers to have exposure to kids that are different and… to see the gifts that our students have to offer,” she said.
For the athletes, the program offers a powerful opportunity for authentic friendships.
“A lot of our students have a hard time with the social skills and all the necessary things that occur with a friendship,” Rooney said. “I just think (Unified Basketball) lends to more natural friendships occurring with the kids, because our athletes can be their true self and our partners just accept them for who they are.”
Arapahoe High School is working to become a Unified Champion School through Special Olympics Colorado.
With the middle school teams beginning, Rosazza had an idea to build a relationship between the Arapahoe team and younger teams.
“We're just trying to find a way to bring them together with some mentor athletes at Arapahoe in order to kind of teach (the middle school teams) how it works,” she said.
Rosazza pitched the idea to her group for a capstone project class, which juniors and seniors at Arapahoe can take. Her partners were all on board for the project, which they titled Joint Unified Mission to Play, or J.U.M.P. for short.
During the recent basketball season, which ended in early March, Rosazza and her group partners coordinated a practice for Arapahoe Unified athletes to lead at Newton Middle School.
“They're just really good mentors towards the younger kids,” she said. “We didn't even have to coach -- they just led the drills and it was awesome… It gave the Arapahoe kids a leadership opportunity, while also still helping the younger kids.”
Rosazza said another benefit of the partnership between schools is getting to watch the students build relationships with each other. She said one Arapahoe Unified athlete got to reunite with some of his friends when he visited Newton to mentor them, and it’s heartwarming to see more relationships like that being created.
“I think this relationship will also make the transition from middle school to high school a lot easier for a lot of the kids because they’ll have some familiar faces,” she said.
Carley Fagler, one of Rosazza’s partners on the J.U.M.P. project, said Unified helps students with intellectual or developmental disabilities feel included.
“For me, it's allowing all kids to feel equal and equally supported,” Fagler said. “I want them to feel like they're a part of the community and they're embraced and loved… To help the middle school kids incorporate that into their lives now, it’s just exciting to watch.”
In addition to the mentorship practices, Rosazza, Fagler and their other partners are organizing a tournament in April that will include the Unified Basketball teams from Arapahoe and all four middle schools.
They are hoping to buy t-shirts for the athletes, serve pizza and have a dance party for the athletes in addition to the games. Money can be donated to support the tournament costs at https://tinyurl.com/yc8wfj42.
Fagler said she hopes the impact of the inter-school partnership extends beyond Unified athletes.
“I also think that we're showing… the kids who are not even involved in the Unified Basketball in schools how we support our unified kids at Arapahoe,” she said. “That’s a good way to transition them into high school, to teach them how to support one another and how we're all equal.”