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At the Schools: Central Falls' leadership in unified sports to be recognized

Providence Journal - 12/17/2017

Dec. 17--CENTRAL FALLS -- It was four years ago that one of her girls basketball coaches at Central Falls High asked Courtney Burch if she would be interested in joining the school's unified volleyball and basketball teams.

Unified sports is the inclusive program that unites Special Olympic athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as teammates for training and competition. Thirty-six schools have unified teams in the RIIL-sponsored sports of volleyball and basketball.

At the time Burch had plenty of reasons to say she didn't have the time to get involved. Back then, she was a 14-year-old freshman who, in addition to trying to play both varsity volleyball and basketball, had taken a job to help her single mother with family expenses. Plus her family was going through some turmoil because of issues involving older siblings.

But despite experiencing her own problems Burch became a unified student coach.

"I like to help people," said Burch. "I wanted to help people overcome obstacles."

So for four years she has done it all. She is a two-sport varsity athlete, she works to help with family expenses, she is on course to start college next fall making her the first member of her family to do so, and she has been a two-sport unified student coach.

She may have joined the unified family because she likes to help people, but somewhere along the line she has come to realize she is receiving as much as she is giving.

"I learned more about myself than I probably taught them," Burch said about the special Olympic unified players. "They show you how to do different things. You learn about yourself. You have to teach them to overcome obstacles, so you learn how to do things differently."

"When you are there for them, you can see it in their faces and that's a good feeling," Burch added.

That's part of what Burch will tell an audience of state and city fficials along with the entire high school student body on Thursday afternoon when she speaks at a ceremony honoring Central Falls High as a National Banner Unified Champion School.

The award is being presented for the first time this year by the national Special Olympics organization to a select group of schools around the country. They are schools that have embraced the unified concept virtually since it was instituted, which was eight years ago here in Rhode Island.

Only three Rhode Island high schools received the honor this year: Ponaganset, North Smithfield and Central Falls.

"Central Falls has been all-in since the get-go. They were one of the first schools in the state to initiate a unified program," said Chris Hopkins, Rhode Island Special Olympics Director of Programs.

There no question the city of Central Falls has had its problems over the last decade. The city went into bankruptcy in 2011. A former mayor pledged guilty to accepting a bribe and the city usually ranks at or near the bottom of the list when comparing family incomes.

But nobody knows better than Burch that while Central Falls residents may not have a lot of money they have a lot of heart.

"I have lived here my whole love," said Burch. "People think it's bad, but when you live here it's really not bad. It's different, it's unique. People in this city help other people."

So it's probably not all that surprising that Central Falls High has been a leader of the state's high school unified program since "the get-go".

Troy Silvia is the current Central Falls principal, but back in 2010 he was the coach of the unified soccer team that was the first high school team invited to the National Special Olympic Games.

Manny Silva, a high school administrator, has been the adult coach of both the unified volleyball and basketball teams since their inception eight years ago. Chris Conway, a Central Falls teacher, has been the school's Special Olympics liaison since the program started.

And every year it seems more people discover the rewards of being part of the unified family.

Rasec Torres also will be speaking on Thursday.

Torres is a Central Falls senior and a varsity baseball player. He had heard about the unified teams during his first three years in high school, had even thought about joining the program. But it wasn't until this fall that he became a partner on the unified volleyball team.

Now he wishes he had joined the team sooner.

"They have great hearts," Torres said about his Special Olympic unified teammates. "I didn't know any of these students before this year; now I love all of them. They make me appreciate sports in different ways than I had ever known.

"They make me realize no matter what happens have fun. I want them to feel what any other athlete in the school feels. I want them to feel the crowd yelling their names. That's a great feeling for every athlete."

So on Thursday, Central Falls High will be given a big banner. It's a safe bet it will hang somewhere prominently in the school, a physical testament to Central Falls' dedication to the concept of helping people overcome obstacles through sports.

Having a banner hanging in the school will be nice, but the people of Central Falls seemed to have understood that unified sports had made them big winners even before a banner made it official.

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(c)2017 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

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