Unified Sports at Ferndale High School provide opportunities for students with and without disabilities to come together and play sports. Unified Soccer has been offered in Ferndale for the past five years. This year, we have added a Unified Basketball Team as well.
Unified Sports programs were originally developed by Special Olympics. About 1.4 million people throughout the world participate in Unified Sports, according to the Special Olympics organization.
“Unified Sports are a joint effort between the general education students and special education students,” said Grant Driver, FHS special education teacher and coach of the Golden Eagles’ Unified Basketball Team. “They combine to make a team, hence the name unified. It’s really great. In special education we always talk about inclusion. This provides a very public inclusion opportunity for general education students to connect with special education students in front of a cheering crowd.”
In Unified Basketball, three special education student-athletes are on the court with two general education student partners at any given time.
Horizon Middle School physical education teacher Holly Wibbens has coached the Unified Soccer Team at FHS for the last five seasons.
“The athletes are just fantastic and so are the partners. The partners are so incredibly kind, and it is so nice to see all the students work together,” said Wibbens.
Practicing after school on Mondays and competing on Wednesdays, the basketball team played six games before wrapping up the 2020 competition schedule with a tournament on Thursday, February 27. The soccer season models a similar cadence, with one practice and one game per week and home games played at Northwest Soccer Park.
“It’s just a great atmosphere, very supportive,” Driver said. “The partners are really good at making opportunities for the athletes to score. It’s meant to be competitive and supposed to be similar to other high school basketball games. It is cool that we have scoreboard, a referee from the league and the gym set up with the bleachers. What we are trying to create is a really inclusive and similar atmosphere to other basketball games.”
Wibbens added that a recent basketball game drew upwards of 150 fans with a good student section and cheerleaders in attendance.
“It’s awesome because our special education students don’t always have that kind of support and spotlight,” Wibbens said.
Ferndale High School Jacob Pace is a member of the Unified Basketball Team and has enjoyed the experience.
“It’s just kind of fun to shoot a couple hoops and play at different schools,” Pace said. “It was pretty cool getting your name announced by the announcer and running on the court.”
Driver’s background includes homecare for individuals with disabilities as well as volunteering with the Special Olympics program in Whatcom County. FHS Athletic Director Eric Tripp approached Driver about coaching Unified Basketball to join Unified Soccer at the high school.
“I used to work in homecare with people with disabilities and it just naturally connected me to people through Special Olympics,” Driver said. “There’s not much like it, so fun and supportive and positive. People are out there to have a great time. Everybody cheers and helps out the other team. It’s not about who wins and loses, although at times that’s definitely a part of the goal and we do want to try and win. But it’s really about creating a positive, fun atmosphere.”
Driver sees valuable experiences and lessons through participation in Unified Sports.
“For our students specifically in special education, Unified Sports give them a sense of sharing and team camaraderie,” Driver said. “It allows them to be in a different setting than they’re used to, in front of people, with a little bit of pressure, and they get a chance to succeed and see others succeed. This is a chance for them experience teamwork and belonging and sense of support in a different environment, within the larger community. Without opportunities such as Unified Sports, this might not happen.”
Wibbens echoed Driver’s sentiments and spoke specifically about the opportunity to coach her daughter.
“My daughter is pretty shy, but if she scores a basket I’ll see her high-five someone which is really neat,” Wibbens said. “And another thing I’ve noticed is that my daughter is more excited to see her friends on the team and talk to them. For all of the kids, it is great to see them score a basket or do something difficult and be successful. I hope everyone can watch a game. They’re so fun to see.”
The basketball season started in late January and culminated at the end of February. The soccer season starts in mid-April.
During the basketball season, the Golden Eagles have competed in a league with Bellingham High School, Burlington-Edison High School, Squalicum High School, Sedro-Woolley High School, Sehome High School and Lynden Christian High School.
Find more information including schedules and scores at nwcathletics.com.
See parts of a game from a YouTube video highlight taken by a parent of FHS student-athlete Ben Rankin at the FHS Unified Basketball Team's first game.