By Jason Wesseldyk
Student from the Otsego High School RISE (Reaching Independence through Support and Education) program took center stage on Thursday, May 12.
Or, more accurately, they took center court.
As part of the Special Olympics Michigan Unified Champion Schools program, the RISE students participated in a Bocce ball tournament in the gymnasium with more than 200 fellow students in the stands to cheer and provide support.
OHS special education teachers Allie Rittenhouse and Erin Horton organized the event, which served as the introduction to the Unified Champion Schools program.
“The students were very excited to start the UCS program here at OHS because they will now have an opportunity to play teams sports and do activities much like their typical peers without their athletic ability being a factor,” Rittenhouse said. “All students are allowed to participate and be a member of UCS so there are no tryouts or cuts.
“The students are involved in helping plan events and they designed and created the shirts for the Bocce ball teams this year.”
A total of four teams participated in the tournament, which included two semifinal matches. The winners of those matches then played, with Team Flamingo coming away with the championship.
“It was an amazing experience,” Rittenhouse said. “All the RISE students enjoyed hearing the cheers and tried their best and everyone had a smile on their faces.
“The cheering from the students in the stands helped the kids who were playing get excited and just filled them with pride and joy. They were asking for the fans to cheer more and bowing and cheering loudly for everyone. The fans made it feel more real and not just practice.”
The OHS Links—general-education students who are paired up with RISE students to help them throughout the school day and at school outings/events—also participated in the Bocce ball tournament.
“The Links have been very supportive and excited about the program as well,” Rittenhouse said. “They play with the students and have a hand in helping plan events as well. UCS is about bringing both students with and without disabilities together so we can’t have the program without both groups of students. The Links were just as excited as the OHSRISE students.”
OHS’s involvement with the Unified Champion Schools program began earlier this school year when Special Olympics Michigan reached out to Rittenhouse and Horton to gauge their interest in being involved with the program. After gathering more information and a few Zoom meetings, Rittenhouse and Horton knew the program would be a great fit.
“We decided that it was a great opportunity to continue to build inclusion for everyone and we wanted to start it here at OHS,” Rittenhouse said. “We got approval and all the paperwork signed in February and started planning an event.”
Rittenhouse and Horton decided Bocce ball would be the perfect first sport for the program at OHS.
“We wanted to start small with the program this year as it was our first year participating and we wanted to be sure that all students, regardless of ability, could participate and play,” Rittenhouse said. “So, it was a teacher decision to start with Bocce ball this year.”
The UCS program provided OHS with four Bocce ball sets, providingg the school with all the equipment in needed to get started.
As the UCS program continues to grow at OHS, the plan is to add other sports and compete against teams from other schools.
“I think that being able to grow the program to include other sports and competitions against other schools will make the program feel more like a team and sport like other sports at school and will increase participation in the program,” Rittenhouse said. “It will continue to help the OHSRISE students will included and involved at OHS.”
Additional sports could include baseball and soccer, among others.
“UCS also has an agreement with (the Michigan High School Athletic Association) to allow students to play both seasonal sports along with UCS team sports,” Rittenhouse said. “And as the program grows, we plan to have UCS be a sports club that meets after school to practice and compete. This will give opportunities to students outside of our OHSRISE students and current Links to participate.”
The Unified Champion Schools program is just one example of the kinds of activities offered to the OHSRISE students. Another example is a Family Fun Night that is set to take place from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24.
Admission is free and activities will include games, face painting and a dog show from 7:30 to 8 p.m. Food will be available for purchase.
“We would love to see people come out and support us,” Rittenhouse said.