For De La Salle Principal, Unified Bond Runs Deep

In just their first year competing at the IHSA Unified State Basketball tournament in Champaign-Urbana, Southside Unified did what they set out to do – bring home the gold.

Southside is represented by students from both De La Salle Institute and Southside Occupational Academy Hub. A Unified team consists of both Special Olympics Illinois athletes with intellectual disabilities as well as Unified partners, or those without intellectual disabilities.

The two schools were a perfect match. The partnership allowed both Special Olympics Illinois athletes and Unified partners from their respective schools to compete as one.

After a successful season, Southside Unified landed themselves a spot at the state tournament. Here, they would go on to beat Limestone Community High School in the semi-final game, and cap off their season with a win over East St. Louis High School for the championship.

To De La Salle Institute Principal, Tom Schergen, this team’s state-level performance is a testament to the bonds formed through the unique partnership between the two schools.

“The championship to me is just a byproduct of everything they’ve done,” Tom said. “The kids from Southside have become a fabric of our community at De La Salle. They work hard, they practice twice a week – it’s been fun to see them compete together this weekend.”

Tom’s son, Tim Schergen, a sophomore at De La Salle Institute, echoed the importance of these relationships. “We’ve grown a ton,” Tim said. “When we first started, we were all hesitant. Now we all talk to each other, and it’s a complete team bond that you would see with any team.”

For the Schergen family, the importance of this bond runs deep. Tim’s brother has autism, which gives their family an inclusive mindset. To the Schergen family, the uniting of these two schools, and the opportunity for this team to compete against their peers is invaluable.

"I know from personal experience that these athletes might not get all of the opportunities that other people get, so I wanted to give them the same opportunity,” noted Tim.

Tom quickly echoed Tim to reiterate this sentiment.

“Having a son with autism, and knowing our school community, I knew that this would be very important.” Tom continued, “Making sure that all kids have an opportunity to be involved - that’s what we strive for at De La Salle. It’s not us and them, we’re all one.”

Looking toward the future, De La Salle Institute and Southside Occupational Academy Hub will continue to work together to create inclusive opportunities for their students. So far, the two schools have participated in bowling and basketball, plus they look forward to competing in track and field this upcoming spring.

In just their first year competing in Unified sports, the Southside Unified team has accomplished a lot. But inclusion doesn’t stop there. Tom believes there is still much to be done in creating a welcoming environment for all.

“We envision doing more sports,” Tom said. “The goal moving forward is to get more kids involved, get more sports offered, and to continue to provide for both the Southside kids and our kids as well.”

East St. Louis Community Comes Together

Similar to their opponents, the East St. Louis Flyers are proud of the strides they’ve made both on the court and in their community.

Tiffany Gholson, Director of Parent and Student Support Services, has been an integral part of the implementation of Unified sports at East St. Louis High School. Seeing the community come out and support the Unified team meant the world to her, and she knew it meant even more to the students.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Gholson said. “I saw them file in and they just kept coming. And at the tail end of that, the cheerleaders came and started cheering, and then our leadership walked in. The energy they brought and the excitement … it was like the stars were aligned.”

Head coach of the Unified Flyers, Maurice Scott, spoke about the joy he receives from seeing his player being celebrated by his classmates.

“Darrius has turned into a rockstar at school,” Coach Scott said. "It was a great day for our community to come and embrace our kids. They hear about it, but for them to come and see it on that stage really signifies what we’re trying to do.”

The East St. Louis Unified Flyers would end up falling just short of a state championship trophy - losing to Southside Unified. While the team was upset about not being crowned as champions, there is still plenty to be proud of.

Coach Scott offered a quote from one of East St. Louis’ own, Jackie Joyner-Kersee: “It’s not about the game, it’s about the game of life,” he said. “We want to teach sports, and through sports we want to teach about the expectations of the game of life that is going to come their way in the next four or five years.”

Sports have much to offer, and the support system that East St. Louis High School has in place know and understand this sentiment. From the top down, they have voiced the power of programs such as Unified sports and the joy and growth it can offer students that may feel discouraged and misunderstood. Superintendent of the East St. Louis School District, Arthur Culver, has been a huge part of the implementation of these programs.

“Seeing the smiles, the excitement, the comradery that’s built because of the Unified experience, it’s just–it’s amazing,” Culver said. “The experience itself makes kids feel good right now, but I’m so excited about it because I know the long-term impacts that competition and being on a team will have on our students."

Culver has a strong attachment to this initiative as he once was a special education teacher himself. He understands the importance of extracurricular activities and ensuring those who cannot participate in the mainstream activities are still given the chance to be involved.

“I went into special education because it’s what I felt like I was born to do,” Culver said.

“Special Olympics Illinois and Unified sports gives me the chance to be back engaged with the population that I love and care about.”

Leadership voicing their appreciation for these initiatives has been a large part of why the East St. Louis community has come together and cultivated a more welcoming environment for all. It could not be done without figures such as Arthur Culver paving the way and showing gratitude toward these students.

“I guarantee it will get better,” Culver laughed. “Our community, our students are extremely excited about it. We want it to grow, and we want it to filter down into the elementary school. We want the Unified experience from elementary, middle, and high school. I guarantee with Tiffany Gholson and Maurice Scott at the helm, you’re going to see, it’s going to grow.”

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