The best way to break down stereotypes about a person is to spend as much time with them as you can.
In the case of Troop 4 of Worcester, Mass., that meant forming not one but three Special Olympics Unified Sports basketball teams.
What started as another big Troop 4 service project has grown into something inspiring and magical.
Unified Sports teams are unique because they include both people with and without intellectual disabilities. Through on-the-court teamwork, these Scouts have developed a better understanding of individuals different from themselves.
“It’s a way to spend time with people that I normally wouldn’t get to spend time with,” says Rosend, a Star Scout. “All the stereotypes that I believed in are gone. Now I believe that my teammates with disabilities are awesome, and I want to thank Special Olympics for giving me this special opportunity to change my perception.”
A tradition of service
Troop 4, part of the Mohegan Council., has completed a service project every month for the past two years.
They have cleaned an ocean beach, helped collect and make maple syrup for a nonprofit, and built shelves for their chartered organization. The Special Olympics Unified Sports team is the troop’s biggest project yet.
But in the beginning, Troop 4 wasn’t sure whether the Scouts could find enough athletes to start a single team. The Scouts created and distributed fliers around the community and realized those worries were unfounded.
More than 25 individuals with disabilities showed up to the information session. That was enough for three teams, each with a mix of individuals with disabilities and Scout partners.
Darrell, a Second Class Scout, is one of those partners. He says it’s a role that “really shows what being a Scout is all about.”
“You get to show leadership, be a team player, and serve the community,” he says. “It really makes me happy to see the Special Olympics athletes so happy. It lights my heart.”
Triple the impact
Troop 4’s three Special Olympics Unified Sports teams are organized by the ability level of the Special Olympics athletes. The chartered organization lets the troop use its gym, and the teams hold 10 practices and eight to 10 games per season.
Each team exemplifies a new term called “diversability,” a repositioning of disabilities as something empowering, not limiting.
There’s a team of 7- to 14-year-olds with more pronounced disabilities like Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. On this team, younger Scouts serve as one-on-one, on-the-court coaches. Each Scout gets paired with an athlete during practices and games.
There’s a mid-level unified team of athletes who have disabilities like autism or traumatic brain injuries. Here, the Scouts encourage the athletes, facilitate the flow of the game, and pass, shoot and score right alongside them.
And there’s a high-level team of teens and young adult males with diagnoses like ADHD or mood disorders. The competition at this level is high, and the Scouts on the team are on their high school’s basketball team as well. Here, the unified partners are completely equal to the athletes.
Through his time on the team, Ronald, a Life Scout, has had his eyes opened.
“It’s a beautiful experience,” he says. “Before joining Special Olympics, I had an image in my mind of who people with disabilities were, and now I see that it’s completely different. It really bothers me to see that people still think the way I did, because, in reality, the athletes are just like us.”
Ronald says one of his teammates even donated $200 worth of cans to a bottle drive to help fund his Eagle Scout service project.
“This made me realize that we are all connected, even outside of the basketball court, and that people with different backgrounds can come together for the good of society,” Ronald says.
Success at the highest level
The troop’s high-level team is, fittingly, called the Eagles.
After an undefeated season — 10 wins, no losses — the Eagles were picked to represent the hundreds of Special Olympics basketball teams across Massachusetts at a Boston Celtics game in March.
Scouts of every rank were represented — Scout all the way to Eagle. They were on the court before the game and played in an exhibition game at halftime.
During the Celtics’ game, some of the Scouts were shown dancing on the big screen.
Special Olympics and Scouting
Lauren Hopper, a Troop 4 assistant Scoutmaster, says more Scout troops should volunteer time with a Special Olympics Unified Sports team.
The Scouts who participate, she says, put their leadership skills to use.
“Unified Sports facilities tolerance and inclusion, and we have found that our Scouts who participate have developed a broader understanding of their role in the community,” Hopper says. “Currently, our entire patrol leaders’ council are unified partners. Based on our experience, serving as a unified partner perfectly complements National Youth Leadership Training and other youth trainings offered through Boy Scouts.”
How to replicate the Troop 4 Special Olympics Unified Sports experience in your community
Do your Scouts have a passion for sports and service? Learn more about Special Olympics Unified Sports teams at their official site.
This isn’t just basketball. There are dozens of sports available, and volunteers are always in need.
Troop 4’s inspiring story
Troop 4 was founded in 2009 in an inner-city neighborhood of Worcester. Of the troop’s 28 registered Scouts, 27 are from low-income families.
“Because of this, every Scouting activity or trip we participate in is funded almost solely by fundraisers that the Scouts plan,” Hopper says.
That isn’t easy in a troop that has only three adult leaders and four active committee members — all of whom work other full-time jobs.
“The role of an adult leader can seem difficult at times,” Hopper says. “However, we have never allowed lack of money or adult volunteers to get in the way of trips or activities.”
Troop 4 has traveled to nine states over the past three years. They have kayaked and surfed, hiked and gone deep-sea fishing, snowboarded and mountain biked.
“Most of our Scouts reside in areas of the city where gang activity is rampant, so we feel it is important to offer trips outside of the city as often as possible,” Hopper says. “My first year as an assistant Scoutmaster, I asked a Scout during his board of review to describe one thing he learned in Scouting that he uses in his everyday life. He proceeded to talk about the different type of gun misfires, how to react when they happen and how to apply first aid to a bullet wound.
“This Scout was 12 years old.”
In spite of — or perhaps because of — their difficult surroundings, the Scouts want to give back to their communities.
Says Hopper: “This, along with a shared love of basketball, is what prompted our troop to start a Special Olympics team.”