Mill Valley’s Unified Sports Club brings students of all abilities together on the court and field

Teammates and their peers with Mill Valley's Unified Sports play bocce ball, basketball and soccer together. From left are Nick Pettigrew, Ryan Jones, Cody Moore, Aidan Parker, Sam Leaver, Kyle West and Nicole Crist. Photo courtesy Mill Valley Unified Sports.

Mill Valley’s Unified Sports Club, an organization designed to bring students with disabilities together with their peers, became officially recognized as a school club earlier this month.

Jamie Pollard, a special education teacher at Mill Valley who sponsors the club, said sports activities allow young athletes, regardless of physical or intellectual ability, to integrate on the court or field, where they can learn from each other, make friends and have a greater understanding of community and being inclusive.

As a Unified Champion school, Mill Valley has soccer, basketball and bocce ball teams within the club. About 20 students are participating on the team, including teammates with disabilities and their peers who play alongside them and also offer coaching.

“It just gives them more a sense of unity within our school,” Pollard said. “And I will tell you: They are very passionate. The peers have been wonderful to work with. It really does change your perspective.”

The school board on April 6 unanimously approved the new club, which is wrapping up its second season.

Programming for the club is obviously on pause while schools are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Pollard said those working behind the scenes to prepare for the Kansas Special Olympics are planning some virtual games, including for the Unified Champion schools.

‘Teamwork, having a good time, doing your best’

The Mill Valley Unified Sports team at a past bocce ball competition in Lawrence. From left are Aidan Parker, Molly Ricker, Kyle West, Sam Leaver, Nick Pettigrew, Luke Gramke and Nicole Crist, with Ryan Jones on his knee. Photo courtesy Mill Valley Unified Sports.

In the meantime, teammates and their peers had positive experiences this school year and hope to come back full swing in the fall.

“It’s just giving everybody the opportunity to be equal and play on the teams, it’s awesome,” Pollard said. “They give 100%, the athletes and partners working together. It’s all about teamwork, having a good time and doing your best. You won’t even know who’s on the court who has a disability.”

Nicole Crist, a junior at Mill Valley who has been part of the club since last year, first got involved through a class that connected her with students in special education.

“This has really helped me build connections and just get to know students that I normally wouldn’t,” Crist said. “I just think the bigger impact it will have on me, looking back on it, is just being able to see the little things that make people happy and just making sure I make people happy through my life.”

Crist wants to encourage her classmates to learn more about the club and get involved if they’re interested.

“It’s just a really great program that I wish I would have been a part of sooner, but I’m glad I’m a part of it now,” she said, adding that she is thinking about a career in special education.

Kyle West, a sophomore at Mill Valley and team member of Unified Sports for the past year, has been involved in all three sports in the club. West has a rare genetic disorder that impacts his ability to speak and read. Nonetheless, he enjoys sports — especially basketball — and the friendships he’s made on the team.

“The one thing that I think he really enjoys with Unified Sports is the interaction with peers,” said Lori West, his mother, adding that the program is great for peers as well. “That way, when he’s also walking through the hallways at the high school, there’s other kids that know him besides just special needs kids.”

West has also competed with Shawnee Storm, a team that takes him to the Kansas Special Olympics for sports like bowling, basketball, softball and swimming.