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Unified Basketball is more than just a game in LPS

What better way to bring people together than by playing a friendly game of basketball?

That’s what happens at Livonia Public Schools’ Churchill and Franklin high schools, through the Unified Basketball program. Students at both schools are forming new friendships and promoting a culture of inclusion by participating together on these special basketball teams.

Sponsored by Special Olympics, the Unified teams are part of a worldwide Unified Sports movement that is 1.4 million strong. Breaking down stereotypes and building friendships is at the heart of the program.

“We are always looking for ways to promote social inclusion in our special education programs,” said Maegan Sprow, coordinator of the Student Services Department at LPS. “Unified Basketball is a really fun, healthy and social venue for this to occur within our schools by bringing together students who are in our Center-based programs and students who serve in leadership roles in the schools. It’s an amazing bond that ultimately forms between the students and it’s so gratifying to watch new friendships and a new appreciation for one another grow, both on and off the court.”

While the Unified Basketball schedule is somewhat short, each school takes full advantage of the fun. Just like any other sporting event at CHS and FHS, there are fans in the stands, an announcer, buzzers, a lit scoreboard and even cheerleaders to keep the energy going. Locally, the two LPS teams play in the KLAA East Division, which includes CHS, FHS, Belleville, John Glenn and Wayne Memorial.

“It’s truly exciting to watch these games,” said Jen Taiariol, PhD., Director of Student Services for Livonia Public Schools. “To watch their faces as they cheer one another on, or high-five after a play, it’s just awesome.”

Both Churchill and Franklin have school-wide social action committees that focus on themes such as anti-bullying and inclusion. Franklin High School holds Kindness Week and culminates the week by packing out the gym for the Unified Basketball game. Churchill High School similarly works to boost kindness at their school. Last spring, for example, the CHS committee formed a public awareness campaign to eliminate the use of the “r” word. 

The program lines up with the district’s Community with Character initiative.

“The character traits we emphasize are respect, responsibility, grit, mindfulness, empathy, integrity, reflection and confidence,” said Taiariol. “The Unified Basketball experience just naturally lends itself to these types of character elements and we are so proud of these students for jumping in and supporting this program with all their hearts.”

Madison Moore is a senior at Franklin and participates on the team.

“It’s the most fun I have had in a long time,” she said. “I love this!”

Logan Hatcher is a student in the Franklin Transition Program and is having a blast playing basketball. 

“We practice with the team and I love it,” he said. “We are gonna win lots of games!”

The excitement of the games is contagious, too.

Sarah Jacobsen, who is a behavior intervention specialist with Livonia Public Schools, enjoys serving as a referee for the Unified Basketball program. She is a former college basketball player and currently coaches high school basketball. Her love for the game reaches new heights in this special program.

“Having worked in special education for 15 years and having been involved in peer-to-peer support programs since 2010, I get to see firsthand the immeasurable amount of joy that playing this game brings to the special ed students and their families,” she said. “As I run up and down the court, alongside these eager students, supported by their dedicated peers, I notice the same pride when they make a basket and the same disappointment when they miss a shot. However, it’s the ongoing support and encouragement by their peers both on the court and in the crowd, that makes it most worthwhile. It’s sort of a microcosm of what our purpose in life and to each other is all about.”

Jacobsen’s colleague, Rick Dubay, who is a behavior intervention specialist, is also a referee. It’s the personal connections that really stand out for Dubay.

“It is so heartwarming to see students with special needs work so well with their general education peers and experience such success in an organized basketball game,” he said. “As I watch the games unfold, it is so powerful to see all of the students encouraging each other and working as a cohesive group to get everyone involved. At times, I find myself watching the game in amazement and I have to remind myself that I am there to ref the game. What a wonderful experience for all those involved!”

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