Valerie Grenier shoots and Kennedy Campbell watches during a Wednesday afternoon Unified basketball session in the GW Graham gymnasium. (Eric J. Welsh/ The Progress)

New GW Graham basketball program promotes inclusion

Grizzly hoops star Megan Owens has launched the Unified Basketball program in the Chilliwack school.

A GW Graham basketball star is bringing her love of the sport to a group of students who are all-too-often overlooked.

Megan Owens has started ‘Unified Basketball,’ a hoops program that gets students with intellectual disabilities into the gym.

“It’s a program that mixes students with intellectual disabilities and those without, and puts them on the same team playing together,” Owens said. “It allows kids to get involved with a school sport where otherwise they probably wouldn’t.

“It’s not common to see them on a sports team, which is unfortunate, and this way it’s in a fun and inclusive environment where they feel welcome.”

Unified Basketball runs Wednesdays at lunch time, for about 20-25 minutes.

“A student with a disability is matched with someone who doesn’t in what’s called a ‘Unified pair,’” Owens said. “They work together and often they develop a friendship bond over time.”

“It’s a pretty chillaxed thing where we get balls out for whoever comes and we just let them shoot at the hoop.”

Depending on the day, there can be 15-plus students participating.

Owens comes up with ideas to keep the sessions fun and engaging, and adapts the environment if needed.

“An example is one student, Valerie, is in a wheelchair and can’t reach the basket with a shot,” she explained. “So we roll out some tires and Valerie shoots at those.

“Even though it’s a really short time, there’s lot of interacting and high fives and positivity.”

The program has only been running since September, but Owens has heard tons of positive feedback.

“I remember the second day, there was one teacher who was really happy that someone thought to include the resource department students in something,” Owens recalled. “It’s not that much work for me to go and shoot with them for 15-20 minutes, but it really meant a lot for her to see her students enjoying that.

“That was surprising to me, and a really good moment.”

Owens is a member of Chilliwack’s Youth Activation Committee (YAC), and traveled to Chicago last September for a youth inclusion summit.

“In the (United) States, Unified is a super big thing,” she said. “You’ll go to a school where they’ll have four different Unified teams. They’ll have Unified clubs and you can actually be crowned a Unified school if you complete six different things.

“It’s super cool and I’m a little sad that I’m in Grade 12 and I can’t start conquering that list.”

Owens is worried about sustainability and what will happen to the program after she graduates. She doesn’t want it to be a one-and-done, and she’s already laying the groundwork for someone else to (hopefully)take over.

“I’ve started a program description and I’m writing down the steps to start a Unified basketball team,” she explained. “I have a couple sample lesson plans and I’m talking to two Grade 11 partners who I hope will be interested in starting it up against next year.

“Once you have the basis of it started, it’s really not that hard to keep it going.”

As a swim volunteer the last four years with Chilliwack Special Olympics, Owens has enjoyed every moment spent working with a group of (mostly) older athletes. She wanted to try working with younger ones as well and so far the experience has been just as rewarding.

She’d like for other students to share that feeling, and she’s happy that Unified basketball programs are also launching at Chilliwack secondary and Sardis secondary under the guidance of Jordyn Zutter and Abigail Robbins. The hope is that all three programs will come together for a sports day in April.

“The athletes and the environment they create and how positive — nothing makes them sad and they’re just motivated to get better,” Owens said with a smile. “It’s so positive and uplifting, and because they’re so comfortable being themselves, it makes me comfortable to be myself.

“That’s why I keep pushing for inclusion. I see a totally different side of these athletes compared to how some people perceive them, and I know what they are capable of.”

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