Project UNIFY: More than just a game of hoops

Disabled Bend High athletes enjoy playing with others

Disabled, abled, unified through hoops

BEND, Ore. - There's no doubt Bend High School 10th-grader Nick Simonich loves basketball.

At practice, he weaves up and down the court, confidently dribbling behind the back and between his legs.

And, oh yeah, he scores a lot.

"I've been playing since I was a kid," Simonich said on Thursday.

He's part of a special team at Bend High called Project UNIFY.

It's a program of the Special Olympics that brings together intellectually disabled students with other students to play sports.

Life Skills teacher and coach Robert Tadjiki told NewsChannel 21 Thursday it's all about providing competitive sports opportunities for disabled kids and bringing together a diverse group.

"It just mixes people up," Tadjiki said. "We're comfortable with those people who are similar, so how do you get to know different people? A great way of doing that is through sports."

About 50 students participate in the program. Half are disabled, the other half are not.

Senior player Jenna Mattox said it's a popular program at her school.

"It's those kids that are popular, who are smart, those kids who are active in the whole school," she said. "Those are the kids who want to be in the class and want to be involved..

The program is five years old at Bend High, and while it started with just one team, now there are several.

The students play soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball in the spring.

Bend High is the only school on the High Desert with Project UNIFY teams.

Tadjiki said some life skills just can't be taught in the classroom.

"(There's) the thrill of seeing these students at an athletic venue, achieving things that are always hard for them, no matter if it's academics, communication or social skills," he said.

Tadjiki likes seeing his students come together to learn invaluable life lessons -- but he also has a taste for winning.

"We've won a lot of gold medals," he smiles. "Bend High School is known as this real competitive team, whenever we go to these state tournaments."

And it's fun for Simonich to get away and go compete with his friends.

"I like going and staying in the hotels" he said. "We get to hang and we get to talk, and it's really fun for us."

Coming up in March, Simonich's basketball team will be headed to state again. Simonich said practice makes perfect, but the big game always comes with some butterflies.

"I think we're ready, and I'm nervous too," he said.

On Feb. 24, the team is holding a fundraiser breakfast, "Enjoy a Short Stack for a Tall Cause" at the Bend Applebees.

The breakfast is from 7 to 10 a.m. and tickets can be purchased for $10 at the door.

Learn more about Special Olympics Oregon and Project UNIFY here:

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