How Unified Sports creates special bonds between Casteel's students
December 3, 2023 by Logan Lober, Arizona State University
Logan Lober is an ASU Cronkite School of Journalism student assigned to cover Casteel High School for AZPreps365.com.
Sports has the unique ability to bring all types of people together whether it’s at the high school, college or professional level.
At the high school level, this ability is taken even further through Unified Sports, a program that pairs students with and without intellectual disabilities to build relationships and promote inclusion.
Before Beth Wais became Casteel High School’s Unified Sports coach, she would hang out with students with intellectual disabilities in their classrooms during the day.
“It was just the bright spot of my day,” Wais said. “They just constantly bring a smile to your face and have so much fun and positive energy.”
It was those moments that caused Wais to jump on the opportunity to coach Unified Sports at Casteel, which includes flag football, soccer, track and basketball.
Unified Sports are set up to be as close to varsity sports as possible.
They practice after school and have one game a week which, just like a typical varsity sporting event, consists of the regular warmup period and National Anthem, followed by the game and both teams shaking hands at the end of the match.
As the program continues to grow, the plan is to split the junior high and high school students into separate teams.
With Casteel being a 7-12 school, all the students are on one team, but the hope is to have enough students to have two teams.
Expansion might not be far away. According to the Special Olympics website, Unified Sports “is in more than 8,300 schools across the United States, with a goal of being in 10,000 schools by 2024.”
Students who do not have intellectual disabilities are called partners and they are on the field with athletes to help facilitate the movement of the game.
Throughout the year, the athletes and partners create a special bond, something that Wais has cherished since becoming part of the program.
“It is truly the best thing ever to watch the relationships develop,” Wais said. “You’ll see them on campus and they’re waving to each other, they’re running up, they’re giving hugs. I mean, it’s just like a genuine peer-to-peer relationship.”
Some partners start forming relationships with the athletes immediately, while others might take longer to become connected simply because it might be a new environment for them.
The main thing Wais tells them: “Treat them like you would treat anybody else. They are humans and they want to be loved. They want friends, they want to laugh, so just treat them like you would treat anybody else.”
Unified Sports teach the partners valuable lessons about responsibility, leadership and empathy.
“They have to lead by example,” Wais said. “Being on time, leading warmups, things like that. They learn to work together and problem-solve. ... They learn communication skills, just honestly how to be a good friend and how to be a kind human and include others.”
Sophomore Jamisyn Taylor, a partner at Casteel, has learned “how important it is to have a community and safe space, a place where everyone can be themselves with no judgment.”
The program and its partners like Taylor also teach these important skills to their athletes like eighth grader Ira Hamilton who has learned that “if you don’t get up the first time, get up and do it again.”
Some partners have taken such a liking to this experience that they’ve decided to study things like special education or occupational therapy in college.
“It definitely impacts lives down the road,” Wais said. “I have a couple of other students who are still in high school, but they know they want to go into special education. So, some of the partners are definitely like, ‘Yep, this is my thing. I'm going to work with students with special needs.’”
Not only does it have an impact on the students, but it also has an impact on staff members at Casteel.
Wais’ classroom has become a popular place on campus for teachers to stop by throughout the school day.
“Teachers will just come into that class and just hang out because they say it's the bright spot of their day,” Wais said. “They want to come see these kids. So, for a lot of people, it's just pure happiness.”
Along with the genuine friendships that are built through Unified Sports, one of the things Wais loves the most about coaching Unified Sports is the excitement of the games.
“When a student who doesn't typically get the opportunity to shine scores a goal or makes a basket, people go crazy. You would think they just won the Super Bowl. It's awesome to see their excitement,” Wais said.
In addition to its regular games after school, Casteel started a tradition with Basha High School where once a year they play a game against each other during school hours, and they invite the entire student body.
“The stands are packed, kids are on their feet cheering it’s loud, it's exciting. And that's what we want for more of our games,” Wais said. “Typically, our games are usually just parents with a couple of siblings. We want to really grow our student fan base.”
The in-school game has helped Unified Sports at Casteel get more exposure and show other students what Unified Sports is.
Remy King, a former partner at Casteel who now attends Northern Arizona University, spent all six years involved in the Unified Sports program.
King originally joined Unified Sports as a partner because their sister was in one of the specialized classrooms at Casteel, but during those six years, King fell in love with the community surrounding the program.
“The sense of community that’s involved in the classrooms, even through elementary and middle school and then in high school, the community is just something that is so enticing to be a part of,” King said. “Just being in the classroom makes you want to continue to be there all the time.”
That community also influenced King to study psychology at NAU, with hopes of becoming an occupational therapist through the university’s doctorate program in the future.
“The ultimate goal is occupational therapy,” King said. “I just want to be involved in it whatever way I can.”
While winning is the main objective in every sport, when Casteel’s Unified Sports team steps onto the field, or onto the court, it’s all about having fun.
“It’s easy to have fun if you're surrounded with the right people and you’re doing something you enjoy with them, it’s just that simple,” King said. “You find a way to have fun when you're around the people you want to be around.”