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Christmas in February for Unified teams

Nearly every score drew a celebration worthy of the NBA Finals.

Elation was in the air as the Grandview and Smoky Hill high schools' Unified Basketball teams vied for a win at the Wolves' home court on Feb. 11. The score was consistently close, but the game featured more warm camaraderie than fierce competition. Players from both teams sported smiles no matter who was leading. Supporters in the stands cheered on all players, regardless of what color they wore on their jerseys.

And the sheer joy that broke out after every basket seemed to transcend any team affiliation. A Smoky Hill player who launched a three-pointer from just behind the line crowed and danced after the ball swished through the net. A Grandview team member could hardly believe their skill after sinking a two-pointer. Every score was an occasion; every point was a case study in sheer joy and unfiltered accomplishment.

That type of unfettered celebration is hardly rare at these kinds of games, tournaments that feature teams made up students with intellectual or physical disabilities and their typically developing peers. None of these players take their accomplishments, opportunities or successes for granted. Every achievement is a cause for celebration with friends and peers, no matter what team they're on.

That element is part of what's made the competition so valuable for Cory Chandler, a para-educator at Grandview and coach of the school's unified team since its inception five years ago. The team is part of the wider Project UNIFY movement. Like other similar teams across the state and the country, the Grandview and Smoky Hill teams have partnered with the Special Olympics to offer athletic opportunities to students with a wide range of needs and a wide range of skills.

Judging from the response at Grandview, the initiative has filled a need.

"There are 62 kids on my basketball team. When we started five years ago, we had 10," Chandler said. "It's taken off like wildfire."

Chandler chalks up that success to the passion of team members, administrators and parents, as well as support at the district level. The halftime ceremony of the game on Feb. 11 saw the formal award of $1,000 to each team from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation. The grants totaling $6,000 for each of the district's unified teams aligned with the core mission of the Foundation, which is dedicated to impacting all district students, investing in innovation in the classroom and building long-term relationships in the community. Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull was also on hand to pose with players and coaches and offer words of encouragement.

The recognition and financial support sent a clear message to athletes, coaches and community members alike. It was a valuable signal for Project UNIFY veterans like Chandler and relative newcomers like Ron Charleston, the Smoky Hill unified coach who kicked off the program two years ago.

That positivity, however, is secondary to rewards Charleston gets from the athletes themselves. He shares in each one of the infectious celebrations. He feels his students' elation in victory and their disappointment in defeats; he gleans the same tough life lessons that come from his team's time on the court.

"When I see them get excited for the game, I get excited. When they make a basket, it's like Christmas in February," said Charleston, who's a paraprofessional at Smoky Hill who specializes in mental health. "I tell them that as long as they give 100 percent, no matter what, they're winners. They're number one. I enjoy these kids, and the greatest thing is seeing how much they love this game."

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