The Buckeye sports program brings together students with, without disabilities

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BUCKEYE, AZ – On a sunny Thursday afternoon, a group of college students practice swimming together at the community pool, preparing for their swim meet next week.

Some can swim and help teach others who don’t. These students are part of Buckeye Union High School’s unified sports team.

“It’s a team, and the point is that you don’t know which is which,” said Travis Haley, unified sports coordinator for the Buckeye Union School District.

The team is made up of students with and without intellectual disabilities. It includes students with autism and socio-emotional disabilities; while some are also physically handicapped.

The district started with a single Unified Sports basketball team seven years ago. Now there is a waiting list and the district offers 10 different programs at three of its high schools.

“We lift each other up, and it’s just a happy place to be,” said Zaneida Woodruff, a sophomore at Buckeye Union High School.

Woodruff tells ABC15 that although she has played other sports before, she sees a difference in the camaraderie within the Unified Sports team.

“It’s a wonderful community because once you [are a part of the team], you get attached,” Zaneida said. She tells ABC15 she feels more comfortable around children with special needs compared to some of her other peers

Haley said being a leader and coach for Unified Sports teams gives her chills.

“It’s kind of like watching our kid grow up and play a sport and then they hit the home run or hit the game winner. I watch my kids do that season after season,” Haley said.

He says families cry and get emotional watching their students play and compete in various sports, adding that some of these parents never thought their student would wear a jersey and compete with other unified sports teams.

Stephanie Torres, a junior student, says joining the Unified Sports team allowed her to compete for the first time.

“I can do all these things that I’ve never done before,” she said, adding that it feels good to meet people who are like her and who aren’t.

Last year, the district made ESPN’s Special Olympics Top 25 Honor Roll.

“Oh, it feels good because we all take doubloons (wins) like everything else,” Zaneida said.

“We’re better than everyone else,” Stephanie said as the two laughed.

“It’s just as important for our students in general to be part of the team, to know that the world is a bigger place than this little bubble we’re in,” Haley said.

“Unified is so much fun to be with, and at the end of the day, we’re kind of all the same,” Zaneida added.

While getting a win is always nice, it’s the feeling of being together and learning from each other that is the real prize for the team.

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