An annual basketball game between special education students at Elizabeth Middle School almost filled the gym on a snowy night in late February.
The spirit squad came to cheer for the players. The school’s band roused the crowd. The Elizabeth Stampede Rodeo queen mingled with attendees at courtside and helped distribute the medals given to each player.
They all came out on Feb. 22 to root for the players shooting hoops at what the school calls its unified basketball game. The players are students with physical, educational and other issues that are otherwise a barrier to participation in school sports, Unified Coordinator Mike Hamner said.
“It’s an opportunity for our kiddos who don’t get to play a regular sport,” Hamner told the Elbert County News.
Hamner, a special education teacher at the school who also coaches football and softball, said the unified players spent several weeks preparing for the game. They designed uniforms similar to those worn by other teams at the school. Then they trained on the court leading up to the big game, which nearly packed the gym with students, teachers, parents and others in the community.
The turnout put a smile on Hamner’s face.
“At one point during the game, I just looked around and realized that everybody was invested in the game and I thought it was really cool,” he said.
The hoopla put the players “on cloud nine,” he added.
The game is in its second year and part of the Elizabeth School District Unified Sports Program, which benefits from donations. Brett Michel, the school’s principal, said fundraising efforts reaped about $400 at the game to add to a $750 donation from the ARC.
Michel he’d like to see the program expand to other sports, perhaps flag football.
About a dozen of the school’s roughly 440 students benefit from the inclusive sports program at any given time, he added.
Michel said it is not just players who benefit from the games. Fans do, too.
“It’s a really rewarding experience for them,” Michel said of fans, including the students who came. “It helps teach empathy and acceptance.”
Those are skills that students will need in life, the principal added.
Hamner said what stood out to him was the effect the game had on the players and fans.
“Everyone who was a part of it walked away as a better person,” Hamner said.