NFHS Unified sports program giving all children a chance at athletic success
By David Yarger
Unified sports in high school have become a fun and exciting endeavor.
According to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, Unified sports “Combines athletes (players with intellectual disabilities) and athletes (players without intellectual disabilities) to create athletic teams for training and competition. Participation is rooted in the principle of meaningful involvement, which ensures that every player is given an opportunity to contribute to the success of his or her team through their unique skills. Inclusive activity is among the most conducive ways to break down stereotypes and foster relationships.”
At Niagara Falls High School, Lauren Granieri, a junior tennis player for the Wolverines, has gone above and beyond in supporting Unified sports.
Granieri helped with the Unified bowling team, which took the Section VI title this winter. She has also come to the aid of NF student Dishon Johnson, who is visually impaired and participates with the team. Even away from the bowling alley, Granieri has guided Johnson in the classroom, as well, with everyday activities.
Granieri said helping Dishon, who added how much he loves Granieri’s helping hand, has meant a lot to her.
“Dishon just started Unified this year. … With bowling, we had a ramp for him to use since he’s visually impaired. He’s brought a lot of light to the team and he’s a pretty good bowler, right Dishon?” Granieri asked, which Johnson of course responded, “Yes.”
The All-NFL Second Team girls tennis player said, as much as she enjoys success on the court, it’s the success she can accomplish off of it that matters to her the most.
“It’s (Unified sports) brought awareness to the school. We started to do inclusion. So instead of only doing special education and general education, we brought it both together, so we’re both included. It’s good that we can be a part of the initiative. There’s a lot of teams in Section VI that do this and for us to do it is a big accomplishment for us,” she said.
Granieri’s work with the team and Johnson has not gone unseen, as several teachers at NFHS commended her for her actions.
Unified bowling coach Matt Leo said, “I think Lauren and all the partners have been wonderful in what they’ve done. We play 10 to 12 kids on any given match and the partners are excellent. They work with different kids all the time and they do a really, really good job with everything they do.”
Johnson’s teacher Kelvin Martin added that the program shows just how much good is at NFHS.
“There’s a lot of positive things going on here at Niagara Falls High School that a lot of people don’t know about,” Martin said. “Some of our students here at Niagara Falls, they hang out in the class, they work with our kids, they eat lunch with our kids. Lauren and the Unified program is just another example of some of the great things that are happening here.”
Unified volunteer and special education teacher Karyn Morrison added that this opportunity has helped Granieri with her ambition to become a special ed teacher.
“She now comes into our classrooms and volunteers,” Morrison said. “Not only is Dishon getting something out of this program … Lauren is getting an opportunity to see maybe what she wants to do in the future. We offer many of the kids opportunities to work with our therapists and different things, so they can look at future careers and future opportunities as we go along.”
Granieri added that the program has played a big key on her possible future career.
“It’s been a huge impact,” she said. “I’ve always had it in the back of my head. My mom was a special ed teacher … but now doing Unified, I know this is what I would love to do. It’s like the best part of my day. I come to the class and get to see what they’re doing, not just during bowling or basketball. I get to see what they’re doing during the day and I get a feel for what it could actually be like.”
The Unified bowling team was Section VI champions, which is an improvement from the team’s eighth-place finish last season. While each team member received a gold medal and a season full of fun, and the school received a plaque for winning, Morrison said it’s more than winning that matters.
“That’s the second most important thing to us. I think the most important is that we’re together. We’re supporting our school and everybody is getting a chance to support the school. If we win, that’s awesome, but we’re not out there to rack up the points; we just want to play and compete.
“A nice thing that you see at our matches … is if anybody on the court or the alley has success, everyone cheers. … If a kid from Newfane rolled a strike, you’d see a bunch of our kids run up and high five them,” Morrison said.
Morrison added that the kids were genuinely sad when the season was over and it showed just how much fun the program was to everyone involved.
Martin added, “Winning is nice, but you can’t put a price on the social aspect and having our kids out in the community.”
At the end of the day, seeing the smiles on kids faces is what means the most to everyone involved.
“It’s the most important thing,” Leo said. “They’re able to enjoy themselves, they’re able to meet other people, meet other students from different schools. Everyone is so accepting and so kind. That’s what it’s all about.”
Martin said, “The program is growing. The greatest impact is not only just for students, but for families. They probably thought they’d never see their kid play a sport, but now they’re out there playing basketball or bowling or doing other activities. You see parents cry, you see them smile. It’s an awesome opportunity for our kids to get out and participate.”
Granieri added that regardless of how her day is going, it always brightens up around the students like Johnson.
“I love it. I can have a bad day and you go in and everyone is getting a strike and we’re all happy. It’s a good time,” Granieri said.
The Niagara Falls Unified bowling team is all smiles after winning the Section VI tournament.