The Unified Sports program offers student-athletes of all levels the opportunity to compete

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Until recently, a selection from Mead’s student body didn’t have the opportunity to don high school’s navy blue and gold uniforms with a panther on their chest.

Seven years ago, Mead Athletic Director John Barrington and a contingent of teachers formed the Unified Athletic Program.

Unified Sports is a program that promotes inclusion by bringing together students with intellectual disabilities with partners without those disabilities through sports-related and educational activities.

Under their leadership, the Unified Sports Program – in conjunction with Special Olympics Washington – became one of the first in the Spokane area. There are now half a dozen schools with an annual program and several more that benefit when they have athletes to participate.

The Mead School District is home to two such schools, as Mt. Spokane also participates in the program.

“Mead’s goal is to create a sense of belonging and an atmosphere in which students with disabilities feel welcome and are regularly included and feel part of all activities, opportunities and functions,” said DeAnna Ganea, one of the school’s unified sports organizers.

When the idea was first presented to Barrington, the school had no additional funding for teachers, uniforms or equipment. But the idea of ​​unified sports was immediately recognized as valuable to the special education program. After a short period of research, it was implemented.

Student-athletes and their partners compete together in soccer and basketball. For these athletes, the opportunity to train, travel and compete as a team provides exercise and helps instill a sense of pride, but is also instrumental in their development.

Grace, Mark Dudash’s daughter, has been in the program for two years. He was a basketball letter winner in high school, and he was thrilled with the chance Unified Sports gave his daughter.

“I’ve seen Grace grow over the last two years because of that, and it’s been pretty special to watch,” he said. “I see the confidence, I see the teamwork and it’s just a great feeling.”

The Dudash family moved to Spokane in 2006. Mark said the decision to enroll Grace in the Mead School District, starting in kindergarten, was the best he had made as a parent. He attributed his thinking to the involvement and involvement of teachers with Grace.

“As the parent of a girl with special needs, it’s educational, it’s exciting – you’re full of pride,” he said. “And those are just the parents. I can’t imagine how the kids feel.

With Special Olympics Washington, Mead relies on teachers including Ganea, Nicole Leslie, Mark Shulkin and Brandon Butler to mentor and facilitate the program.

“You have to have all the coaching staff ready to make it work. We have great coaches and the (partners) are great,” said Ganea. “So it’s really fun to see both sides, because it’s equally rewarding for the partners involved.”

All teachers take time out of their normal hours to help coach and promote the benefits of Unified Sports.

“These teachers, they have a full day, but they’re willing to stay after school and coach and do this,” Dudash said. “It’s just a wonderful thing.”

Unified games are usually scheduled between the girls’ and boys’ college games. This gives the athletes a full crowd to play in front of – plus full cheerleading and band support.

“It’s so nice to see the looks on their faces and to see them proud to put on the shirt and feel like they belong,” Ganea said.

On top of that, college coaches at Mead allocate practice time throughout the season so the unified team has a time and place to prepare for upcoming games.

With the success of the program, Dudash hopes more schools will add unified teams. Current programming availabilities are limited.

But light schedules didn’t stop Mead from playing in the Unified Basketball District Championship at the Liberty Lake Hub on Feb. 5. The Panthers took first place, earning a medal for every athlete and partner – and an unforgettable memory.

“It was exciting,” Ganea said. “They were warmly welcomed when they arrived at school the next day and took pictures with their medals and (were mentioned) during the morning announcements. It was exciting for them.”

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