A whirlwind of sports and smiles. That's what Bellerose Composite High School was like on May 31 when the Unified Jamboree came to town. Amid the cheering and fair play was a celebration of athletes of all abilities.
“As soon as it started, I think everyone forgot what their roles were and just had fun,” offered Emily Lines, program coordinator for Unified Sports with the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA). “It was a very good event like that.”
According to Special Olympics’ website, Unified sports uses a participation model that promotes social inclusion by integrating athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities on the same teams for the purposes of sports training and competition. The end result is enhanced social engagement between the athletes and greater development in their athletic abilities. It is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
The jamboree is akin to an annual open invitational track and field day with bocce, bean bag toss (a.k.a. baggo), and three-on-three basketball being the three sports on the register, each having both competitive and recreational divisions. There were more than 400 athletes from 21 area schools that came to give it their all that day at Bellerose.
“It was a huge event this year,” Lines added. “There was lots of cheering from the crowd and lots of strategy being played but it was all in good, fun competition.”
In 2015, the ASAA partnered with Special Olympics Alberta to pilot the first official Special Olympics Unified Sports program in Canada. In the first four years of the program, participation went from 9 schools to 58 and from 86 athletes to 890, an increase of more than 1,000 per cent.
Bellerose’s inclusive education teacher Jeet Jermana said Unified Athletics is a big deal at the school. It was an incredible day, he offered, with dozens of teachers helping out to supervise and a few hundred student volunteers making sure that the jamboree was a big success.
"For me as a teacher and a part of the program, and a coach, I think that (inclusion) was probably the most beautiful part. When we talk about inclusion and we use inclusion so much in our world, but to actually see it meaning that the kids are leading each other – there's not as much adult interaction; it’s peer-to-peer, it's same-age friends, and becoming friends and creating relationships. This event was like – I know I'm biased – but it was a master class in inclusion. It was just so beautiful," he began.
"Everyone’s cheering a basket; kids are high-fiving each other. It doesn’t matter who scores. Someone’s happy," he continued, adding that he's been a competitive coach and player of different sports for years. No win can beat the celebrations of victory and vitality that he witness on the courts that Tuesday.
"It’s probably one of the most feel-good events of the season and of the year for sure. It was such an incredible day."
Metro Athletics is the governing body for the Edmonton area puts on the jamboree, managing the rotation as the event moves around schools from year to year. There are a few bids in to host next year’s jamboree but that decision is yet to come.
Stony Plain’s Memorial Composite was the winner of the Metro Aggregate Unified Banner with first, second and third places awarded for each sport in their respective competitive divisions.