Unified friends take top honors

East Meck students participate in national volleyball championship

by Morgan Smith

The East Mecklenburg High unified volleyball team participated in the national championship last weekend, taking second place. Back row, left to right: Chris Hanson, Sarah Hanson, Alec Viscount, a Butler High student, Sarah Mumford, Josh Arredondo, Donny Wisor, Cortney Dillard, Sam Shisso, Jerome Thedford, Karen Rauss and Joseph Foster. Front row, left to right: Seth Withrow, Jessica Allen, Kara Diachenko, Katie Degnan, Myers Park High student, and John Frame. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hanson

For one group of students at East Mecklenburg High School, volleyball is more than just a game – it’s friendships they never thought they could make and a key tool to unify their school with.

Six regular education students and six special education students are part of the Project UNIFY volleyball team, which blossomed out of the Project UNIFY club at school. The team traveled to Utah last week for the USA Open National Volleyball Championships in Salt Lake City, where they were one of six unified teams to compete. The group took home the silver medal, beating both the first and second seed teams from Arizona and New Hampshire. But it’s the friendships and the fun that made the trip all worthwhile, students said.

Project UNIFY encourages students with and without disabilities to seek interactions with one another through sports. It’s a program under Special Olympics. At East Mecklenburg High, the team formed last year, and because they were the first high school unified volleyball team in North Carolina the students were invited to Nationals where they shined among other unified teams and around 440 regular volleyball teams, as well.

Jessica Allen, a senior at East Mecklenburg, started the Project UNIFY club at the school her junior year after she saw a need.

“It’s just a great opportunity for people to see the better in (exceptional-children students),” Jessica said, “and to really mend that bridge or close the gap between us.”

For Jessica, she said the program has been more than she could ever imagine.

“It’s so unique and so incredible and it’s just something I never thought I would be doing,” she said, adding she’s not even good at volleyball. “Just seeing the kids and seeing them happy just makes it all worth while.”

Barbara Diachenko said her daughter Kara, an E.C. student, loves being part of the team.

“It makes her feel like she is part of the school. She’s very athletic, but has trouble finding an outlet for it sometimes,” Diachenko said.

Diachenko said inclusion is necessary for E.C. students to feel like a part of the school community. While they are separated enough with academic classes, she said, having a chance to be part of the regular school population through sports is a great initiative.

“(Kara) is just so social, so it’s the perfect outlet for her to do that,” Diachenko said.

Sarah Hanson is an E.C. teacher at the school, as well as one of the four coaches for the team, along with Karen Rauss, an East Mecklenburg physical education teacher, Donny Wisor, E.C. teacher and Chris Hanson, a CMS police school resource officer. The four traveled with the 12 students to Utah.

“It was so much fun,” Sarah Hanson said. “Just being there and just the compassion that was there from all the teams and everyone cheering everyone else on; the compassion for the game and for the kids.  That’s just what it was all about – just the spirit that was there – it was great.”

Greg Morrill, Special Olympics coordinator for Mecklenburg County, said the Special Olympics communities in both the county and throughout the state are extremely proud of the team. As one of the most active groups in North Carolina, Morrill said he hopes East Mecklenburg’s success helps encourage other unified schools such as Charlotte Catholic High, Charlotte Country Day and Providence High in south Charlotte, as well as other schools that have no Project UNIFY club at all.

“I think it’s really important because it brings about an attitude to the school that is more inclusive and that really breaks down a lot of stereotypes,” Morrill said, “and you really see that in the schools that are participating.”

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