Four schools came together today (November 7),  as Cochrane held its first ever Unified Sports Festival.

Students from Cochrane High, Airdrie's Bert Church, Chestermere High, and Notre Dame High from Calgary came out to enjoy two events at Spray Lakes Sawmills Family Sports Centre.

Competing in both bocce ball and a bean bag toss game known as baggo, roughly 100 students participated in the one-day event.

While the Unified program is much bigger in Eastern Canada, Cochrane High School is excited to be a part of the wave that is sweeping Alberta. 

Pairing together students with intellectual disabilities known as 'athletes' with students from the general population know as 'partners', Sinead Holzer, Learning Support Teacher for Students with Complex Needs says teams are comprised of two partners and two athletes. Never a shortage of willing volunteers, Holzer says if anything she tries to ensure that everyone who chooses to be involved with the program has the opportunity. "We usually have a wait list and have no problem whatsoever filling spots. I try to get different grades and different kids; so we have the basketball player, the soccer player, and then the kids who aren't connected to anything in the's pretty amazing."

Happy with how the festival turned out, Holzer says the day was beneficial for all. "This morning a student in my program said she was happy she had a new friend, which is not always easy when you have an intellectual disability to find people you can connect with. Then my other students, who are partners, said it was so much fun."

Grade 12 Cochrane High students, Kaia Ntwari and Roselyn Kamelchuk were referees for the festival, and say they are excited to see the Unified sports program evolving and expanding. "We are both able to learn a lot from each other. From them (athletes) we are learning it's not always about winning but just have fun and then they are able to participate with kids that aren't only in the learning hub but everyone in the school rather than being segregated."

Creating an inclusive environment is a top priority for Cochrane High, and Kaia and Roselyn say it shows. "When we can get everybody together, not just Cochrane High School volleyball and only basketball teams, it gets everyone involved and puts things in perspective. Everyone can work together to put something together like this and that's really fun."

The girls say the day was filled with smiles and that all the athletes had a blast. "I am really grateful for all the opportunities we get to have at school and this opportunity we get to present for everybody else."Grade 12 Cochrane High students, Kaia Ntwari and Roselyn Kamelchuk feel the benefits of the unified program run both ways.

Excited to see inclusive play opportunities become a growing trend in Cochrane, the girls say they would love the unified program to expand provincially. "When you get to experience basketball provincials and everyone is out there in the stands for you, I think it would be amazing for the learning kids to experience the same thing. The size, excitement, and energy...I think it would be amazing if it got to that huge provincial level."

Holzer says this event is just the beginning and they will look to the future to plan and host more unified events.



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