Sports has the power to teach, but that lesson takes a unified form with Lynden High School’s brand-new Unified Basketball team. And the students couldn’t be more excited.
Unified Basketball has started growing throughout Whatcom County and this year’s addition of a team at Lynden High offers a program meant to promote social inclusion through shared sports training and games. The team brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities, placing them on the same team with a focus on promoting friendship and understanding. The team is made up of students of similar age and also includes representation from Lynden Christian High School.
“Our community is rich in sports traditions,” says Cabe VanderYacht, a Lynden Middle School teacher and Unified Basketball team coach along with LMS staff member Marielle Face. “We believe the outcomes that have occurred for our student-athlete should be extended to as many kids as we can.”
This first year pairs a group of roughly half a dozen athletes with another half-dozen peer athletes from LHS. VanderYacht says that during a game, the team will field three athletes and two peer athletes on the court at the same time with the peer athletes there to help the athletes know where to go and “put the athletes in position to be most successful. The peer athletes will also promote inclusion at school and in the community by intentionally breaking down barriers.”
“The experience has been phenomenal, and I have enjoyed every single second of it,” says Grace Rice, LHS senior and the Northwest Conference’s volleyball MVP from the fall who plans to play volleyball at Biola University. “The athletes are so much fun and make each game and practice special.”
Lane Simonsen, a LHS senior who has committed to playing baseball at the University of Washington this coming fall, says the experience will “definitely be something I will remember for a long time.”
“Being around everyone has made me realize we play sports to have fun,” Simonsen says, “and to enjoy your teammates and the people you are around.”
VanderYacht says that history has shown programs like Unified Basketball positively change the hearts and mind of students who get involved. Getting to this point has been a district-wide approach. Superintendent David VanderYacht championed the efforts of Grant Brickbealer and his goals of making the team happen, calling the development of the current team a result of the district’s “all means all” mantra of ensuring inclusion.
“This experience will help me in life because I am able to see the community come together and the inclusiveness of everyone loving on everyone,” Rice says.
Cabe VanderYacht notes it was critical to get buy-in from peer athletes and their participation helps determine the team’s success. “We are using sports to build community within our schools that will transcend time,” he says. “In the practices and in the game, our peer athletes help teach our athletes how to play basketball. Our peer athletes help with the rules of the game, game flow and skills needed to have success. Most importantly, our peer athletes and peer students will be leaders for our student body, demonstrating team and school friendships that are inclusive.”
That inclusion extends to games, where Cabe VanderYacht encourages community participation. “One of the goals for our team is to invite as many students as possible to support our team in competition and at school,” he says. “Our hopes are to pack the gym for our home games. We want a similar look in the gym to what our varsity teams experience each home game.”
Rice and Simonsen both say they have friends in other schools who were involved in Unified Basketball and encouraged them to join. “When I got asked, I was thrilled I was going to be part of this experience,” Rice says. “I have learned that making each practice and game extra exciting is so important. I get so happy to see all the athletes because they have all impacted my life.”
Simonsen says he expects the experience will help him find the good in everyone and everything he’s doing, whatever it is, and “have fun and enjoy it.”
Cabe VanderYacht adds that the leaders both on the team and in the school also show comfort in including all students and encourage others to venture out of their typical friend group.
Simonsen says “seeing the athletes get excited for each other, being great teammates and overall just meeting new people, connecting with people and getting to play and help with something that’s bigger than myself” has proven special about the opportunity.
The athletes love the experience too. Cabe VanderYacht says the athletes are working hard, but remain busy laughing and building friendships. “They have had pride in their team and understand how great this opportunity is,” he says. “Each practice there has been moments that hearts have been filled and minds have been opened. Those moments are felt by athletes, coaches and parents.”
Home Game: The Lynden Unified Basketball team hosts a game at the Jake Maberry Gymnasium at Lynden High School at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 23.