At the end of basketball season last week, Regis Jesuit High School student Megan Meckling reflected on her experience coaching a team with Project UNIFY, an initiative of Special Olympics.
“While working and coaching the kids, I have often asked God: ‘Why?'” the senior asked in a reflection paper. “How unfair it is that such beautiful individuals live such hard lives because of their disabilities.”
The individuals she referred to are young people with intellectual disabilities. Through Project UNIFY and Unified Sports, schools bring them together with typically developing students to foster respect and dignity, and advocate for those with intellectual disabilities.
“I now understand why,” Meckling continued. “In my heart I truly believe that these kids are angels sent down from heaven to teach us to be humble and to simply love.”
Jane Whitley, moderator of the Girls Division Special Olympics Club, oversees the project with Kelly Dorsey from the Boys’ Division, who worked to bring the project to Regis Jesuit this year.
“It was a great season,” Whitley said. “It was so well received … from the moment we presented it to the administration last year.”
The RJHS Project UNIFY basketball team consisted of six special needs athletes, nine RJ students and four student coaches—two from each division. They practiced on Sunday afternoons for an hour and a half, followed by a team dinner.
“It really became like a family atmosphere,” Whitley said.
They completed an eight-game schedule in the Continental League, taking second in the Special Olympics regional basketball tournament, and third at the Special Olympics championship tournament March 15 at Gold Crowne Field House in Lakewood.
“It was such a joy,” Whitley said. “The whole stadium was cheering.”
Following the tournament, they traveled to the Coors Event Center in Boulder and played an exhibition game against Fossil Ridge at 5 p.m., after the Regis Jesuit girls’ basketball team had taken the 5A state championship in the same location at a 3 p.m. game.
“It was really the highlight of the season,” Whitley said, adding because the program has been so well-received, Regis Jesuit is considering additional programs such as soccer and cheerleading.
“It’s all about love and acceptance,” she said. “It’s such a great program to get people to understand and appreciate their differences—and not only their differences, but their similarities.”
Both athletes and student partners are eligible to earn a varsity letter. For students, it requires strong attendance, a set grade average, adherence to a code of conduct and a reflection paper. Reading the papers has been a powerful experience, Whitley said: “I’ve cried after each one.”
It’s clear the students were moved by the experience.
“Having been able to work with these kids has been the biggest blessing,” Meckling wrote in closing, “an incredible and touching part of my Regis experience.”
For more information, visit http://specialolympicsco.org/join/project-unify.