‘They see the joy in it that I do’

MIHS Unified Sports coordinator discusses vital program.

It was a thrilling time for Ben Murawski when he stepped onto the field to quarterback his Unified Sports flag football squad in the big game on Nov. 10 at Mercer Island High School (MIHS).

The school’s Unified program is run through Special Olympics and provides inclusive competitive activities for students with and without disabilities in the football, soccer, basketball and robotics realms.

Football is first on the MIHS sports docket, and Murawski hooked up with former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Courtney Taylor for a bevy of touchdowns as their team defeated the MIHS varsity squad, 77-56, as the band and cheerleaders performed and the crowd cheered at the Islanders’ stadium.

Murawski, a senior, got the job done on the field and his teammates played integral roles in securing the victory, he said. Spirits were high on both sides of the ball with everyone proud to participate in the special event, said MIHS Unified coordinator Jeniffer Blaser, adding that varsity coach DJ Mims joined Taylor in leading their teams through the game.

When the band broke into “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars,” Murawski was elated to have Darth Vader’s theme accompany him along the way.

“That song got stuck in my head for the rest of the game (and) after it ended,” he said.

Blaser said the purpose of the Unified program is to bring students together on the playing field to compete and form friendships. She added that it’s important and valuable for this all to occur in front of supportive students and community members in the grandstands.

It’s one of the highlights of her day.

“I think that when people come out and they see the games, they get super excited for it. They see the joy in it that I do,” said Blaser, who teaches special education at MIHS and leads a class at the Crest Learning Center. “I think it gives me a really awesome opportunity to work with people like Ben and to do some things outside of my job as a classroom teacher that is still furthering and helping to support our schools in education.”

The MIHS program includes about 30 students: eight to 10 athletes, and the remainder of the participants are partners or student leaders. Blaser said that everyone’s kind and respectful and they work hard together while enjoying themselves.

According to the Special Olympics Washington site, “Having sport in common is just one more way that preconceptions and false ideas are swept away. Our opponent is intolerance. Only shoulder-to-shoulder, as teammates together, can we defeat it.”

Blaser, who is joined in the Unified program by MIHS instructors Christine Kenyon and Chantel Torrey, said the students are included in the senior sports awards at end-of-season banquets. Just like all sports, Blaser and her colleagues connect with the athletic office regarding field schedules, equipment and jerseys and social media posts to announce game times and locations.

Unified Sports entered Blaser’s orbit when she taught at a school in Arizona, and she became involved with the MIHS program when she walked through the school’s doors six years ago.

“After the first couple practices and games, it’s really easy to see why it’s so important for the students and the benefit that the whole community gets from participating in more inclusive activities,” she said.

Unified leaves a lasting imprint on those who were involved in the program, said Blaser, noting that an MIHS grad returned to watch the recent football game and cheer for the players. She gets satisfaction from watching athletes grow from their Unified experience and have it remain with them after they graduate.

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