BATH — It’s the last minute of the final game for Morse High School’s unified basketball team, which boasts an equal number of students with and without disabilities. Shots are taken, missed, and taken again as the clock ticks down until the buzzer sounds and every player, coach and spectator erupts into cheers, applause and congratulations. Who wins isn’t remembered, but the sense of acceptance every student feels will last a lifetime.
The unified basketball team is just one part of Morse High School’s involvement with Unified Champion Schools, a Special Olympics Maine program aimed at fostering a sense of social inclusion, respect and acceptance for all students and teachers. The Bath high school received national recognition on Friday from Special Olympics Maine for its involvement in the program.
Morse High School has been involved with the Unified Champion Schools program for the past three or four years but is already one of four schools receiving national recognition by the organization this year according to Lisa Bird, Special Olympics Maine director of public relations.
Nathan Priest, Morse High School athletic administrator and dean of students, said the recognition from Special Olympics Maine is an honor “but we also understand that our work is not done.”
“We want to continue to grow our programs, continue to educate people about the ugliness of the ‘R’ word, and to keep helping foster relationships among all of our kids,” said Priest. “We are lucky to have a great staff who see the big picture and are working hard in offering opportunities to all of our kids.”
Morse High School offers unified volleyball and basketball teams, holds assemblies aimed at increasing awareness and understanding toward people with disabilities, and offers leadership opportunities for students with disabilities, according to Priest.
The Times Record spoke with students involved with the Unified Champion Schools program, all of whom agreed being on the school’s unified basketball team is the highlight of their school year and has helped them make new friends, both with and without disabilities.
“The unified basketball team is more fun-based than competitive,” said Zoë Walker, a Morse High School Student with a learning disability. “Win or lose we’re just happy to be with each other.”
“The thing about unified basketball is even if you miss a shot, the other team will give you another chance and cheer you on and wait until you make it in,” said Courtney Boucher, a Morse student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “We cheer everyone on, no matter who it is.”
For parents, the games are just as fun because “no one boos at anyone and we cheer regardless of who scores,” said John Boucher, father of Courtney and Chelsey Boucher.
However, knowing their child is not only being accepted for who they are, but cheered for by their peers, is more important than any sports game.
“The fact that Morse is all-inclusive is amazing because having kids with and without disabilities interact is so important for them to understand and accept one another,” said Carrie Walker, Zoë Walker’s mother.
Some students said they don’t think they would play basketball if the unified team wasn’t offered because they enjoy spending time with their new friends more than the game itself.
“Seeing everyone smile and have a good time, even if we lost, that’s the best part,” said student Chelsey Boucher, a Morse student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and gastro creases that force her to use a feeding tube.
“Even if we lose, on the bus we we’re singing and playing music and everyone is still having a great time,” added Courtney Boucher.
Aside from being a fun after-school activity, students agreed their school’s involvement with the Unified Champion Schools program has given them more confidence, introduced them to new people and helped them feel accepted at school.
“We know just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they’re not smart or nice or can’t do things,” said Walker. “I used to be very quiet and tried to hide that I have a learning disability because I haven’t had the best experience with people making fun of me at other schools. With the friends I’ve made here, I’m more open about it and I don’t try to hide it anymore.”
Priest said the school’s involvement with the Special Olympics Maine program has changed the school’s culture for the better, a trend he said he hopes continues.
“We have seen our special education students become more social throughout the school,” he said. “The friendships and bonds that have been created are special, which makes me like to think we have kids who are truly supportive of one another.”