About five years ago, Holland (Mich.) Christian High School formed a Unified Sports soccer team to give students with intellectual or cognitive disabilities an opportunity to compete on a team that also includes typically developing students as partners.
Anticipating competing against other states, coach Ty VanWieren said, “We are representing the state of Michigan as a team.”
Unified soccer is a little bit different from traditional soccer. Teams play with seven players on a side instead of 11, the field is a little smaller than a regulation-size field, and the goals are smaller, Van Wieren said.
“You have four athletes and three partners on the field,” Van Wieren said.
Ann Pawloski is an educational support services teacher at Holland Christian and also assists with coaching the team.
“The athletes are students with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. A partner is a student without cognitive impairment or intellectual disabilities,” Pawlowski said. “We might have partners that maybe have a physical disability, but it’s not a developmental-type disability. That’s the big difference.”
The Holland Christian team played unified teams from other schools around the state as well as teams from local Special Olympics programs to prepare for the state tournament that took place in October. Because there aren’t many schools in the state that sponsor unified soccer right now, it can be challenging to find an opponent, with teams sometimes having to travel several hours for a game, Pawlowski said.
The team receives financial support from Michigan Special Olympics for the program, and also does fundraisers such as a plant sale where it sells plants that are grown in the school’s greenhouse, Pawlowski said.
“For our soccer team, (Special Olympics) purchased all our soccer balls, the uniforms, which are professional-style uniforms like any high school team would have … (and) they also help with compensation for coach pay,” Pawlowski said.
Van Wieren and Pawlowski said the value of the program goes far beyond the games.
“It builds friendships and relationships,” Van Wieren said. “(Teammates) sit with each other at lunch, they’re hanging out with each other in the hallways, they can say ‘hi’ to each other. I think that’s one of the cool parts of this.”
Pawlowski calls the unified soccer program the most impactful program she has been part of in her 20 years of teaching, in terms of changing the culture of the relationship between students with disabilities and the general student body. Pawlowski has been at Holland Christian for 16 years.
“It’s a natural way for (students) to develop relationships. It’s not a forced thing,” she said. “It’s also very meaningful because it’s something that continues outside the (field). We don’t facilitate that. That just happens naturally.”