MVRHS again receives Special Olympics recognition

Unified basketball, track, bocci, and more bring students of all abilities together.

The Martha's Vineyard Regional High School was recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School again this year. — Lexi Pline

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) was recognized for the third consecutive year by Special Olympics Massachusetts as a Unified Champion School for their continued dedication to bringing students with and without disabilities onto the same court, track, and field.

Each year, schools are recognized as Unified Champion Schools for “demonstrating commitment to fostering a socially inclusive school climate that emphasizes acceptance, respect, and human dignity for all students,” according to a press release from the athletics organization.

Despite major hurdles created by the pandemic, Massachusetts Special Olympics vice president of schools and community development Patti Doherty wrote in the release, MVRHS was determined to promote social connectedness and highlight the importance of including all students in fun and enriching opportunities, both in-person and virtually. 

“You all are truly creating a ‘unified generation’ of young people who embrace differences and lead social change,” Doherty said in the release.

Since the inception of the idea at MVRHS in 2018 (starting with unified basketball), school athletic officials have been thinking of new ways to bring students with and without disabilities together.

Three years after the start of the program, the school has since expanded to unified track, bocci, and other extracurricular activities. MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy said in the release that the entire school community has taken on the commitment to embrace differences and drive important social change. 

With a solid foundation in place, we can forge even more paths toward inclusion within our school community,” Dingledy wrote.

Ryan Kent, unified athletics coach at MVRHS, told The Times in a phone conversation that he is proud the school has earned the recognition every year since the start of the program.

“Your school has to show not just a commitment to unified athletics, but to the real central premise of inclusion,” Kent said. 

Along with sports, MVRHS also has the Best Buddies program, run by school librarian Kevin McGrath. In this program, the values of unified sports are translated into interactive events that seek to create strong friendships among high school students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Kent noted the school’s involvement in the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, a global initiative to promote inclusion in all forms.

“It’s really a recognition of our school community taking steps to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities as everyone else,” Kent said. 

Over the years, a significant amount of thought, planning, and resources have been put into creating the programs and keeping them active. Kent said being recognized again by the Special Olympics reinforces the importance of always striving for inclusion.

As the school year ramps up, Kent said he is excited for basketball and track, and the bocci trips are always something he appreciates. 

Of course, the dream down the road is to expand in all different directions,” he said. “But my goal this year is to get the program back to the place where it started before the pandemic, with everything in full swing traveling back and forth to the other schools, and hosting teams here.”

When the unified sports team couldn’t travel and play against other teams last spring, Kent said, he was “blown away” by the other coaches and teams at MVRHS who took time out of their schedule to practice with the unified teams.

“It was absolutely amazing, and one of those silver-lined opportunities that came about from a real bummer of a situation,” Kent said. 

With so much divisiveness and disconnectedness nowadays, he added, coming together and playing a sport is something that everyone at school can get behind. 

 “The world is at each other’s throats, and then we have this. The Island can be split over all these hot-topic debates going on — I have yet to come across a single person that debates the importance of this, the power of this,” Kent said. “I am more proud of being a part of this program probably than anything else in my professional career, because of what it can provide for the Island and what it brings to the kids when they have their chance to shine and have people see it and be excited about it.”