Unified Sports gives students with disabilities and their parents a chance to be involved in something that other families take for granted…

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There’s something about wearing a uniform. Of a real sports team, with real refs, real coaches, real teammates.

Once you pull that uniform over your head, you’re legit. You belong, and these are your people. Both on and off the field—or court.

But how many of us haven’t taken that for granted? That either our kids or ourselves were able to join a team if we wanted, of a sport we loved? As much as we may complain about the busyness of carting to and from practices, it’s where we meet community, cheer our kids on proudly, watch them grow in all sorts of ways.

But not every parent, or every kid has those options. Which is one reason among many why Holland Christian started its Unified Sports program. “Unified Sports gives students with disabilities and their parents a chance to be involved in something that other families take for granted,” said Vicki VanPeursem, Educational Support Services (ESS) teacher at Rose Park. “One of my students who is involved is so excited that her dad is her coach, and she loves dressing up in the uniform, complete with pink soccer cleats.”

Similarly, HCHS junior Charlie DeVries ’21, couldn’t wait for his Unified basketball practices to start in late November, and was thrilled he could sport uniform number 30, the number his older sister wore for her team years ago.

Like all Unified Sports teams nationwide, the HCHS Unified teams join males and females with intellectual and/or physical disabilities, officially called the “athletes,” and kids without disabilities, or the “partners,” on the same team. At any given time during games, an equal or greater number of athletes to partners need to be out on the court or field. The idea behind Unified Sports is not only to give kids with special needs a normative experience, but also to use sports as a quick avenue “to friendship and understanding” (specialolympics.org/our-work/sports/unifiedsports).

Through a combined effort, HCHS Athletic Director Dave Engbers, HCHS ESS teacher Ann Pawloski, and HCMS ESS teacher Erin Johnson launched the HCS Unified program, jumping into the middle of the school year last year with a high school basketball team. (Engbers was told by Zeeland Public’s AD that “you just gotta jump in and just do it,” he said.) This school year, with Erin hired as HCS’s K-8 part time Unified Sports coordinator, the program intentionally expanded into the middle and elementary schools at HC, adding soccer teams at both lower levels that also includes kids from ZCS. Ann Pawloski, the high school’s Unified Sports coordinator, has plans to add competitive bocce in the spring.

Not only does the creation of Unified Sports align with HC’s School Improvement Plan goals on inclusion, it also provides spectators a glimpse of the beautiful diversity that exists in God’s kingdom. In addition to running the HC program, Erin, Dave, and Ann have also been assisting other West Michigan schools with the development of their own Unified Sports programs.

“Unified sports allows a place for the student and their family to relax. To not feel the pressure of keeping up,” explained Karen DeVries, Charlie’s mother, who says that until 8th grade, Charlie played traditional middle school basketball, despite his Down Syndrome. “Unified celebrates our differences instead of trying to all be the same. We’re so filled with negativity in our world, and it’s just refreshing to see people be kind to each other.”

But the amazing thing is that it’s not just for the kids and families with special needs. Not at all. And that’s been another blessed thing to watch.

“I have found that inclusion is as much about the student body as the one they think they’re ‘including’,” Karen said. “To me, I sit there amazed to see these kids who volunteer time, and gear up for these games, to have fun out there, but nobody’s making them do that.”

These kids, the partners, are pretty amazing. But don’t think much of it themselves—they just love the experience of being on the team with a group of kids they hadn’t necessarily hung out with before. And there’s a long waiting list at the high school to get on the Unified basketball team.

“Unified basketball was one of the coolest teams I’ve been on—everyone is treated the same,” said Karis Walters ’20, who also co-leads the Maroons Activation Committee, the student group focused on supporting and promoting inclusion at HCHS, not just on the courts. “Just seeing the joy everyone had—not just the players, but the mentors’, or partner’s joy to get to enjoy the experience, no matter where you’re at in life.”

Kylie Smits ’20 helped coach the HCMS Unified soccer team this fall. “Honestly the kids are full of joy, just being themselves,” she said. “It’s just cool to see them interact, and it’s their first time being able to play a sport when they can do well. Watching them improve is really cool too, seeing them get better.” Scorecards are kept, refs in uniforms make official calls, and goals tallied, “but in the end it doesn’t matter,” smiled Kylie. “My mom came to one of our games, and told me afterwards she was crying, it was so cool to watch.”

Luke Bushouse ’24 joined the HCMS Unified soccer team since he knew one of the members on the team, and “figured the team would be a great way to connect with him more than just in passing in the hallway,” he said. “I liked seeing the look on the some of my teammates’ faces after they scored or were passed to or just their excitement at being part of the team. So often they are left out or not fully included and it was great to be part of a team that gave them so much joy.”

But Luke has also enjoyed extending that relationship off of the team: “When I talk to one of my Unified teammates at school, sometimes my friends come along with me and I like that,” he said, “because it just takes one person to break the ice and make a connection and now that we have that, I’m seeing relationships grow and develop. We sometimes sit together at varsity football games on Friday nights, and sometimes we have lunch together too.”

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I have found that inclusion is as much about the student body as the one they think they’re ‘including.’ To me, I sit there amazed to see these kids who volunteer time, and gear up for these games, to have fun out there, but nobody’s making them do that.

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“It’s a really good way to meet people, and once you get to know them, you bond pretty fast,” said Kylie. “They’re so eager to see someone they know in the hallways.”

“I have found it easier to interact and talk to students with disabilities in the high school because I have a new appreciation for them,” added Cam Zuverink ’21, who helped coach the HCMS soccer team.

A further goal of Unified Sports is to break down barriers so that what happens on the field, or on the court, would spill out into the hallways, into the parking lots, and maybe even into the greater community outside of school. That kids with special needs would have friend groups outside of the halls or Unified teams. Maybe even someone to hang out with on weekends? That’s why Unified Sports is often preferred over Special Olympics teams, which include people only with disabilities, and why the DeVries’ decided to put Charlie on the Unified teams, and include him in as many things as he can at HCHS, from marching band to theatre productions.

“When Charlie was born, I remember thinking in the hospital, ‘There are going to be more people in heaven because of Charlie,’” Karen said. “We desire to keep putting him in situations where he’s with his peers, because I think that’s where God wants him to be.”

And that’s the vision that more and more HC students are starting to catch as well—what a blessing and a delight these kids with special needs are to the rest of us. Karis took Sam Sytsma ’20, who happens to have autism, to the HCHS Homecoming Dance this fall. “Interacting with students at school is one thing, but we’re trying to get those interactions in the general community, outside of school,” she said.

“Inclusion isn’t just asking someone to sit with you at lunch, it’s asking someone to sit with you and genuinely wanting them to, and having conversations with them, and sharing life with them,” added Grace Brashears ’21, who helped coach the elementary soccer team, but also co-leads the Maroons Activation Committee. “I don’t want people to look at inclusion as something that they check off their to-do list, and then never try and pursue a friendship or get to know them further than that. Unified Sports is just the first step of this.”

And Karen sees Unified as an intentional way for a community to incorporate kindness, to share Christ: “It’s not just be nice to Charlie—which is great. But built into Unified is the desire to meet others where they’re at, to learn to sit next to someone at lunch, be sensitive to someone about a test,” Karen DeVries said. “Unified builds that not only for those with special needs, but helps raise the sensitivity and awareness for where someone else is at, raising understanding. Creating intentionality to meet people where they’re at—that’s what Unified [Sports] does.”

Just come to a Unified basketball game sometime this winter to check it out for yourself. The schedule is posted on the HC website, hollandchristian.org/athletics/coed-unified-sports/. If you’re anything like the rest of us, you won’t be able to wipe the cheesy grin off your face for a long time afterwards.

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Unified…helps raise the sensitivity and awareness for where someone else is at, raising understanding. Creating intentionality to meet people where they’re at—that’s what Unified [Sports] does.