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.
“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.
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.