FRANKLIN (CBS) – Any parent of a child with a disability will tell you inclusion is key. Building friendships in the classroom and in athletics can make a world of difference. A program at Franklin High School is taking that lesson to the next level.
“This is like a family,” Meaghan Harmon told WBZ-TV. She is one of the neurodivergent athletes on the high school’s Unified Basketball team.
She plays alongside what are called “partners,” or neurotypical students, like varsity athlete Andrew Pepin.
“The relationships being built has been something that I couldn’t have ever thought of,” Andrew told WBZ.
And when you talk to these young people, you quickly notice a pattern. They are playing for something much bigger than a game.
“I actually sort of formed my own sort of family here,” said Kaitlynn Jones. She couldn’t speak for much of her young life and says the unified program has allowed her to build confidence. “With this program, it actually has broadened my socialization a little bit more.”
Jared Hamilton, who is also neurodivergent, says he’s learned teamwork and selflessness.
“Take others’ feelings over mine,” he said. “Help everyone out as much as possible and be really supportive of everyone.”
That attitude has made them rock stars in the world of Unified Basketball, growing in just five years to a 56-member team coached by Lisa Burger and Jeremy Rice.
“Pure joy” is how Burger describes the experience. “Being a special educator as well, this is what we strive for in the classrooms every day, to get these kids to be included and build that self-esteem.”
And the neurotypical partners will tell you they get just as much out of it.
“Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and when we use those great relationships, like everyone’s been saying, we can really work together to highlight those strengths for everyone,” said Audrey Bonacci.
And they are all now as special as it gets. The team learned this past fall they qualified for the Special Olympics in June in Orlando, becoming the first Unified Basketball team from Massachusetts to get that invitation.
“Just an unreal experience,” says Justin Allen, who also plays on the varsity basketball team. “I’ve never achieved anything like that before, and it was great to do with the people that I just have a great time with every day.”
A few weeks ago, the Panthers also got to play at the TD Garden at halftime of a Celtics game.
In the process, they have all become close friends on and off the court.
“We get to have those incredible moments where someone feels included and truly is, it’s not forced at all,” says Coach Rice.
The unified program is fundraising, and if you’d like to help, click here.