The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) was deemed a Special Olympics Banner School at Thursday’s unified basketball home game against Falmouth.
The high school received the award after going above and beyond to meet 10 national standards that serve as the minimum qualifications for consideration.
Last year, MVRHS formed a Unified Sports basketball league that brought students with and without disabilities together to play on the same court. Eventually, the program grew to include unified track, and even unified bocci.
In the Sancy Pachico gymnasium, the camaraderie and genuine friendship seen between players brought some parents and students to tears.
Massachusetts Special Olympics director of schools and youth engagement Patti Doherty said the experiences shared in the gym create friendships that can last a lifetime.
“Not only do the students bond and interact on the court through sportsmanship and friendly competition, but they get the opportunity to carry those bonds with them off the court and into the hallways and classrooms of the high school,” Doherty said.
Unified basketball at the high school is considered a varsity sport, and the ecstatic crowd cheered and clapped as students with disabilities and without set each other up for layups and guarded one another with fervor.
“It’s really an incredible thing. You can see just by the reactions in the crowd how important and powerful it is, including everyone in the same game. It’s all about togetherness and inclusivity,” Doherty said.
Three of the Special Olympics banner standards that Doherty said the high school exceeds are inclusive culture, youth leadership, and whole-school engagement.
According to Doherty, inclusive culture promotes a sense of togetherness regardless of whether a student has disabilities or not. Youth leadership involves putting students in leadership roles and allowing them to help others. And whole-school engagement encourages the entire student body to participate in sports and school events.
“Martha’s Vineyard really goes above and beyond in those categories to create a student body that values camaraderie and acceptance,” Doherty said. “I believe everyone should have the opportunity to play sports for their school, wear their school colors, and really represent.”
During the game, the joy on the players’ faces could be seen during every shot in the paint or forward drive, as teammates worked together to defeat a powerful Clippers team, 54-52.
At halftime, team captain Wynnie (“The Godmother”) Wells said she felt confident in the teamwork exhibited so far. “The game is going really well, we are really working together,” Wells said.
With one minute left on the clock, Vineyard powerhouse Taylor Hughes scored a buzzer-beater for an electric finish.
Mike (“Magic”) Johnson was the leading scorer for the Vineyard team, netting 16 points at Thursday’s game, borne from multiple breakaway drives.
Johnson currently has 68 points this season, and is the leading scorer overall.
Athletic director Mark McCarthy said the feeling of delight at unified sports games is infectious, and spreads through the entire crowd. “You cannot go away from that game without feeling good and happy,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said the connections made between students on the court and track carry over to every experience they have outside the competitive sphere. “I have seen several kids come out of that program, and you see them interacting in the hallways, asking each other how they’re doing, giving high-fives; it really puts a smile on your face,” McCarthy said.
Aside from the inclusive programs and culture at the high school, McCarthy said Martha’s Vineyard is a pillar of togetherness that can serve as a guide for other communities.
“Jabberwocky is a great example of how the entire Island focuses on these values,” McCarthy said. “It’s very powerful when you notice how proud the parents are of their kids and of the Island community.”
McCarthy also gave a shout-out to the teachers and coaches who constantly support the unified leagues at the high school. “They are the stars too,” McCarthy said.
Leader of the Unified Sports League at the high school and coach of the unified basketball team Ryan Kent said the school has come a long way from two years ago.
“This program didn’t even exist two years ago. Now we have three different unified sports, and have fully integrated the typically functioning kids with the kids with disabilities,” Kent said. “We went full-tilt instead of just starting out with one sport.”
Kent mentioned the Best Buddies Club at the high school, which carries over the values of unified sports into fun, interactive events like going to the movies, going bowling, and doing arts and crafts projects. “That’s just another example of whole-school involvement, where kids come together and form strong bonds,” Kent said.
Kent said lots of Islanders donate time and funding to support the unified teams at the high school. “A pretty prominent business person on the Island donated money for the team’s uniforms, so the kids have fresh, new uniforms to play in,” Kent said.
According to Kent, heading the unified sports program is “the most rewarding thing [he does] professionally.”
He said the team gives students the ability to have a new experience that has been largely unavailable to kids with disabilities in the past.
“The passion really comes from the kids, because they have such a unique opportunity,” Kent said. “A lot of them have never had an opportunity to travel, wear the purple gear, or have people cheering for them — that’s what this is all about.”
One parent of a child with disabilities told Kent the program is an “absolute miracle,” and has changed their kid’s life.
“It’s being able to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and forming those bonds that can last forever,” Kent said.