The Special Populations division of Lawrence Parks and Recreation offers a youth Unified Sports league. The league provides children with special needs the opportunity to participate in athletics in an environment that doesn't emphasize their disability, but gives them the opportunity to play sports with other children their age who don't have special needs. Special Populations Supervisor Annette Deghand took a few minutes at the end of the basketball season to talk about her division and what makes the Unified Sports league so important to the community.
How many years has Special Populations offered basketball?
All of the unified youth programs started in 1999, with basketball being the very first sport offered.
Do you see the program growing or continuing to stay at the same size?
Some of the sports we offer bring in more than others and the numbers seem to vary. I would like to see more participation among the "non-disabled" population so the numbers are more even, but our current numbers and participation are still doing well.
I noticed many of the kids are the same kids who participated in baseball. Do you find that the group stays the same from sport to sport? Is this a good or bad? Why?
Many of the participants are returning, and I think that speaks well for the program and the staff out there supervising the program from week to week. I think it's a great thing because that means they are pleased with the program, gaining new friendships, learning more and more fundamentals of the sport and getting everything out of the program that they want.
What is the greatest benefit to the kids from the unified basketball league?
They all have the opportunity to focus on what they can all do and not what they can't do. Everyone's differences are put aside and there is no pressure to playing. It's a very positive, reinforcing atmosphere for all the kids. Lots of encouragement and kind words and expressions are shared among all in this program.
What do you enjoy most about your role in giving these children an opportunity to participate in sports, one they might not enjoy if not for the Unified Sports league?
Just the overall interaction among all of them and that overall positive experience that the league provides. For many participants (disabled and non-disabled) that don't want to compete in a competitive league, the Unified Sports program is an excellent option for them. There's nothing better than seeing a participant shoot and make a basket for the first time during a game; the expression on their face and their excitement is priceless.
How do you go about getting volunteers to help with the teams?
The majority of the volunteers are parents, and their involvement is what makes the program a success. Their support and assistance is a great feature of the program. I have also worked with Baker University and KU to recruit volunteers. Volunteers are always welcomed, and if anyone would like to volunteer at the program, they just need to contact me.
What is one thing people without special needs can learn from spending time at a Unified Sports league game?
The first thing that comes to mind, is how to have fun. There's much more to it (as mentioned above), but fun is the number one thing!
When is the next session of the league?
Our winter basketball league starts up on Jan. 20.