Special Olympics Alberta held its 38th annual awards ceremony on Saturday (October 13) celebrating communities and members for their passion for supporting athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Johnny Byrne, Special Olympics Alberta President and CEO says creating inclusion through sport for people with an intellectual disability is an everyday commitment for the organization. "It takes dedication, passion and fortitude to make the Special Olympics movement possible and to be able to recognize our members and communities who are making an impact is a true honour. With over 4000 athletes and coaches across the province, celebrating a few inspirational members is just the tip of the iceberg for us and our awards are able to put a spotlight on what we strive for."

Over 200 guests including athletes, coaches and supporters came to the awards ceremony at the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino, and this year Cochrane was recognized for its efforts.

Recognized as the most 'Unified School' in Alberta, Cochrane High stood out for its involvement in the Unified program, great participation, and school spirit

Shanna Kurylo, Program Director for Unified Sports in Alberta shares making sure all students have an opportunity to participate in the school sports community is why the unified program exists. "Our goal is to make sure every student of all ability has access to school sport in some way. Whatever their ability is or however they are comfortable participating, whether recreational or competitive, everyone should have an opportunity to compete as part of their school team."

Cochrane High was thrilled to receive the award celebrating their efforts to bring people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team for the love of sport. Sinead Holzer, Learning Support Teacher for Students with Complex Needs was thrilled for the school's recognition and gave thanks to all those that support the Unified School Program. "We have really great kids in our community and I want to give kudos to the parents because that doesn't happen on its own. It takes a village and people are raising kids who are thoughtful, kind and want to help."

Cochrane High has been attending quite a few unified events in the Calgary region, competing in sports such as basketball, track and field, bocce ball, as well as a bean bag toss game known as baggo. Holzer shares when competing at events the infectious Cobra spirit is very evident. "We are often one of the loudest and largest groups at unified sports events. We come in full force and it's a sea of red coming in. One of the reasons I love Cochrane High is we often have students on the waitlist to come, support and volunteer for the program and the unified sports."

Last year one of Cochrane High's students with autism spearheaded the unified intramural floor hockey program which sees upwards of 40 to 45 kids play including those in wheelchairs. The best part is having the support of NHLer Calgary Flames, Dillon Dube come and join the fun. "The kids who helped out the most in our unified hockey are kids who play competitive hockey."

Creating a meaningful inclusive school community where celebrating student's individual strengths is something Cochrane High is well known for. "Students from our program when they are walking down the hallways get High 5s and they are in classes with all these other students. We are pretty much in every option class and working side by side with students from the general population. We have had students that haven't previously felt connected to their school community because maybe they are not an athlete or maybe they're not a music performer but they have great a heart and compassion."

The Unified School Program started back in September 2015 and is a partnership between Special Olympics Canada and the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association. The program continues to grow exponentially, growing from 8 schools to the 43 offering the program as of last year.

Cochrane will host its first ever Unified Festival on November 7th and Kurylo anticipates a fairly good representation. Ten to fifteen schools within  Calgary, Cochrane and Rocky View County area have been invited to compete in bocce and baggo events at Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Centre.

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