The new Project Unify club, established on campus this month, is a program that works to break down barriers between those with intellectual disabilities and those without, in order to create a spirit of inclusion on school campuses.
“The goal is to get them working together, and having fun together through sports,” said Tyler Bjork, president and founder of the club.
The Project Unify club is a national program and part of the Special Olympics. Bjork started it after extensive experience with other such clubs in cities whose Special Olympics program is farther along than Tacoma’s, which has just recently begun to organize.
Project Unify, through Unified Sports, another program operated through Special Olympics, uses sports to bring people together. A Unified Sports team includes both those with disabilities, who are called athletes, and those without, who are called partners. They compete together in a variety of sports. As the program is just getting started in Tacoma, it currently involves only soccer; however, the hope is an expansion into basketball and other athletic activities.
Taylor Morgan, Manager of Washington Special Olympics Sports and Programs, explained that after Seattle’s success with a soccer league, the decision to expand south into Tacoma was a clear next step. Currently she is working with local high schools and colleges to form teams; the soccer program is planning to kickoff in April, and will culminate with a large tournament in June that will decide who moves on to nationals.
UWT’s club is exploring two options in planning how it will be participating in the Unified Soccer League: either the university can put together its own team, or it can sponsor a team from a local school. Sponsoring would involve mentoring, coaching, and simply being at games to cheer on the athletes.
Project Unify is not all sports focused, however, and will also include fun activities for those who are less inclined towards athletics.
“[We] make sure that everyone has a sense of community when they step on campus,” said Morgan.
Bjork hopes to organize educational trips to local museums, bowling nights, and other inclusive events that will allow participants to enjoy each other’s company.
In spring, the club plans to hold an anti-defamation week called “Spread the Word to End the Word,” in which they will ask students to pledge to stop saying the word “retarded.” Bjork hopes that the campaign can raise awareness about all types of acceptance and inclusion as well, not only disabilities, although that will be the club’s focus.
As the program expands in Tacoma, there is a need for volunteers who can give up even just a Saturday afternoon to cheer on athletes, or people who are willing to put in more time to coach or play.