Noah Narayan’s goal for the basketball game was simple.
“I’m just trying to get the ball into the hoop,” he said with a smile before he took the court.
A freshman at Skyview High School, Narayan was one of dozens of students who competed Feb. 14 in the 2015 Vancouver Unified Basketball Invitational at Fort Vancouver High School. The tournament, for students with special needs, included teams from Skyview, Fort Vancouver and Hudson’s Bay high schools, and two teams from Puyallup School District.
Seeing the ball float through the air and drop into the basket, though, was just a small victory on a great day.
“It doesn’t matter who wins or loses,” said Narayan. “It’s all about having fun.”
A fun and competitive atmosphere is the goal of Project Unify, which is affiliated with Special Olympics. This is the project’s first year in Southwest Washington. Mick Hoffman, Vancouver Public Schools’ executive director of operations and athletics, and Suzy Adams, athletics specialist, helped make Project Unify a local reality.
“This was something we needed to do for our kids,” Adams said. “It’s another spot for our kids to be involved in their school, represent their school and take pride in their school.”
Special Olympics jumpstarted the project by providing a grant that paid for transportation, jerseys and other affiliated costs.
Adams recruited coaches at the high schools and got the word out to students and parents.
“The response has been awesome,” she said.
On game day, cheerleaders from Fort Vancouver and Hudson’s Bay and the Fort Vancouver band performed while a crowd of friends and family cheered on the teams.
The tournament marks the beginning of a new era in the lives of students like Hudson’s Bay sophomore Jeremiah Compton.
“I’ve been hoping to get him involved in something like this his whole life,” said Compton’s mother, Jeannine Compton. “He’s always wanted to do something like this.”
Jeremiah’s sister-in-law, Britny Zayas, was excited to see her brother-in-law run, dribble, pass, shoot and play with his team.
“It’s really good being here and having him in this environment,” Zayas said.
As the name implies, Project Unify also seeks to foster new relationships and a shared understanding among students. Unify teams include student mentors who help move the games along and assist their teammates.
For mentor Gerry Navarro, a junior at Hudson’s Bay, there is more to it than that, however.
“For me, it is about having fun with these students and making the games fun for them,” Navarro said.
VPS organizer Adams said, “The kids are forging friendships and we have seen some great qualities come from that. It’s empowering for all students to feel what it’s like to be part of a team. It’s inspiring to watch.”
Parent Dana Marshall said her son Gage, a senior at Hudson’s Bay, has always had a passion for basketball, but grew up unable to play the sport he loved in a competitive environment.
“He’s happy here,” she said.
Project Unify will continue with soccer this spring and will expand to include soccer teams from Evergreen, Camas and Washougal school districts, as well as VPS.
“Watching these students play sports together confirms our commitment to this program,” said Hoffman. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Skyview High School’s basketball team placed first in the Project Unify regional tournament and will compete in the state tournament in Wenatchee Feb. 28.