Watch out, Cougars: There’s a new basketball team at Canby High School. It’s called Unified Basketball, and it’s giving athletes with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to experience the joy and camaraderie of high school athletics.
The new program is a partnership between the OSAA and Oregon Special Olympics. Worldwide, more than 1.4 million people take part in Unified Sports, with ESPN serving as a global presenting sponsor since 2013.
But the idea to bring it to Canby initially came from Athletic Director Ben Winegar, as Activities Director and Leadership Adviser J.D. Bellum explains.
“As soon as he mentioned it, I was excited to be a part of such a great program,” Bellum recalled. “With the full support of CHS and all its resources, we set out to get this program started. Inclusivity is something we are always working towards at CHS. Unified Sports felt like just one step in that direction.”
The Special Olympics-inspired program teams up high school students with intellectual disabilities, known as the “Athletes,” with non-intellectually disabled students, called “Partners.”
First, Bellum went to special education teachers Jenn Chaffee and Katie Brown about what the program entailed and discuss how to get things started.
“Being a non-SPED teacher, I knew I needed help recruiting players for the team, and I needed help working with students with special needs,” Bellum explained. “Together, we helped to identify those students that would qualify for the team as Athletes.”
For the Partners, Bellum turned his eye closer to home, toward his own students in the Canby High School leadership program.
“I knew those students had the maturity necessary to help create this team,” he said.
Bellum serves as head coach of the team, which practices during a fifth-period physical education class headed by Bellum and P.E. teacher and head baseball coach J.J. Stolsig.
“All in all, our time together as a team has been nothing but fun,” Bellum said. “Our practices are fast-paced and exciting. I see lots of smiles on our Athletes’ faces every day. It’s something I’m very proud to be a part of. Working with the team really is the highlight of my day.”
Bellum was grateful to Canby’s special education department, which has helped get the Athletes ready for the program, and Winegar, who has done the lion’s share of coordinating the team’s four-game schedule against other schools.
But he’s been especially proud of the Partner athletes who are participating in this year’s program.
“They have handled things with such maturity, and humility, it’s really humbling to watch,” Bellum said. “The Partners know that Unified Basketball is about the Athletes and they do everything in their power to help lift up and support those Athletes. You can tell that our Partners really care about our Athletes.”
As for Bellum himself, he believes the experience will be just as unforgettable for him as it is for the Athletes.
“This is definitely an experience I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ve never seen such joy and excitement. In just a couple weeks together I’ve seen real bonds forming between the Athletes and their Partners. I can’t wait for our first game!”
Canby’s unified team currently boasts 25 students, which include 15 Athletes and 10 Partners. At Unified Basketball games, three Athletes will take the floor along with two of their Partner teammates.
Outside of that, it’s a regular Canby High basketball game at the Main Gymnasium, with officials, scorekeeping, cheerleaders, fans in the stands — the works.
Canby’s first-ever Unified Basketball game will be at 4 p.m. Tuesday, January 17, versus West Linn, and Bellum is really hoping to pack the stands with students, alumni and community members — and create a homecoming-esque level of excitement and enthusiasm.
“We want to make this a very special event,” Bellum wrote in an email to students, staff and families last week. “We need you in the stands, loud and proud!”
For more information about Unified Sports, visit the website at specialolympics.org.
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