Plainfield Community Middle School (PCMS) is on board and they’re currently in their fourth season of the Unified Sports program. (Photo by Amy Payne)

As a Team – PCMS Unified Sports Program

Families who have one or more children with intellectual or physical disabilities know how difficult it is to find inclusive activities for their kids.

While there are several programs out there for those with special needs, there’s something unique about joining with classmates for a cause that elevates everyone involved.

Special Olympics created a program inspired by the idea that training together and playing together is the path to friendship and understanding.

Plainfield Community Middle School (PCMS) is on board and they’re currently in their fourth season of the Unified Sports program.

The idea behind Unified Sports is to join students with and without disabilities to compete on the same team. In some instances, students are paired in a buddy system so everyone receives the support they need, and in others, tasks are more fluid and they simply play together.

Not only does it encourage students to support one another, but it also allows athletes with disabilities to lean on peer mentors when they have a question or feel unsure about what to do next. Hopefully, having their favorite sport in common, and the experience of accomplishing something together, strengthens the bonds among students of all abilities.

Nathan Ellis, PCMS assistant athletic director and seventh grade social studies teacher, has been there from the beginning.

Unified Sports Track Meet brings out athletes and supporting classmates from Plainfield Middle School.

“We started out with track and attended a meet at Brownsburg Middle School West pre-pandemic,” Ellis said. “Since then, we’ve added nine or 10 different schools to compete in track meets, and last year we also started offering basketball.”

That track meet with Brownsburg Middle School West was so fun for all involved, PCMS decided to create their own program, and so far it’s been a success.

It’ll take time to build to the program’s full potential, but Ellis is already seeing good signs.

In 2023 athletes in the Unified Sports program competed in two basketball games, and four are scheduled this year, including an away game at Franklin Central.

“It’s really about how many people are interested in participating and who we can compete against in our area,” Ellis said. “Right now there are well over 100 schools participating in unified track and field at the high school level, and probably 10 to 15 schools at the middle school level. For basketball, I’ve reached out to a few other schools and Avon Middle School North replied with interest, so we’ll get a chance to play them this season.”

According to the official Special Olympics website, the Unified Sports program is in more than 8,300 schools across the country, with the goal of reaching 10,000 by the end of 2024, with ESPN serving as the global sponsor. In addition, more than 19.5 million youths are taking part in the experience.

Ellis has seen the benefits firsthand and said his goal is to have a unified sport in every season: fall, winter and spring.

Not only do the athletes have a blast, but he’s also seen the entire school get behind the program and cheer on peers.

“It’s incredible to see the student body cheering for every shot,” Ellis said. “I think they’re louder than they are at traditional basketball games. We recently had an athlete hit a three pointer and the gym just erupted.”

The games are announced alongside all activities happening at PCMS, and it’s not unusual to feel the excitement or see a few fist bumps in the hallways.

“The athletes wear their jerseys on game day,” Ellis said. “You can hear the students talking about it throughout the day. It’s cool to see all the hype around it and I routinely have students ask how they can help or get involved. This program will continue to grow.”

Perhaps what makes the program so popular is the positive changes seen in every athlete. They’re building confidence, self-esteem and friendships along the way.

Ellis knows one student-athlete who sits silently in class, never saying a word, but blossoms on the court, most recently scoring 12 points in one game.

Others, like athlete Jas Roop Singh, have participated in both the basketball and track programs. Singh said he enjoys his teammates, having fun on the court, and making three-pointers.

Emma Righter, an eighth-grade student, also plays on the team. Students without disabilities are developing leadership skills and giving back to their peers in a unique way.

“My little sister has Down syndrome and I understand it,” Righter said. “It’s just fun being able to help other kids, and you’re a part of something way bigger than yourself. I think our classmates do a great job cheering us on, and it’s just a cool thing to be a part of.”

There’s an educational component too.

Righter may have a little more knowledge than others from experience with her sister, but for many, working with students who have special needs might allow for growth and understanding.

The staff working on the Unified Sports program at Special Olympics are counting on it.

“Any time you can work with someone slightly different than yourself, you gain a greater perspective and understanding,” Ellis said. “It’s even prompted other inclusive activities. We have a Best Buddies program forming for next semester and we’re already looking at offering flag football soon.”

In fact, the PCMS staff participates in several Special Olympic fundraisers throughout the year, including the annual Plane Pull and upcoming Polar Plunge challenge this spring.

The school was recently recognized as a Champion Together in the Middle school by Special Olympics.

Schools who have distinguished themselves by providing inclusive activities and programs receive a Unified Champion Schools banner. Requirements include organizing at least one Unified Sports program, and fundraising a minimum of $750 for the organization to assist in sustaining and expanding inclusive programming.

Best of all, PCMS is inspiring students to grow in their understanding and awareness of those who may be different. For those who may have struggled to be included in the past, hopefully those days are over.

“We want all of our students to have the same opportunities,” Ellis said. “There are so many smiles at our practices and games. It’s just fun to see the students interacting and enjoying themselves.”

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