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Unified Sports brings elementary kickers together  

Multiple districts — Marshall Elementary third-graders Tatiana De Freitas and Ava Whittemore spent a recent afternoon sitting in the grass at the Byron Center soccer complex, cheering on their Bulldog classmates in gray.

Down the sideline, Lee Elementary third-graders in contrasting bright orange T-shirts cheered for their fellow Trojans. 

On the field, students from both schools kicked around the soccer ball, while Marshall Principal Kris Vydareny provided commentary and led cheers for both teams.

Both Unified Champion Schools through Special Olympics, Marshall and Lee brought together students from their peer-to-peer LINKS programs for some friendly and inclusive competition. 

During halftime, Ava shared her favorite part of being involved in LINKS: “It’s a great experience and we get to help other people,” she said. “Today’s game has been fun, and we get to hang out with kids from other schools.”

Marshall is one of four Unified Champion Schools in Byron Center, alongside West Middle, Nickels Intermediate and Byron Center High School for their support of LINKS. Lee is one of two in Thornapple Kellogg, alongside TK’s middle school.  

The Special Olympics program joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. 

Unified Sports teams include basketball, soccer, bocce, bowling and track and field. Many local schools and grade levels play a sport or combination of them including in Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Caledonia, Cedar Springs, Northview, Forest Hills, Grandville, Kenowa Hills and Sparta.

“This game is a celebration of true inclusion and (happened) thanks to hard work from all of our LINKS students,” said Rachelle Busman, Byron Center’s district psychologist. 

Thornapple Kellogg’s former social worker, Lara VanVolkinburg, recently moved to Byron Center schools but maintained her friendship with Lee’s Autism Spectrum Disorder classroom teacher, Vicky Damico, which inspired the game between the two districts. 

“It’s awesome for all kids to be involved,” Damico said after the match. “We want our LINKS kids to build relationships now, and going forward.”

She added: “Some of our kids want to be special education teachers because of the LINKS program.”

One Lee Elementary third-grader said playing with her LINKS friends in the soccer game helped them overcome their fears and learn how to play the sport.

Added Lee third-grader KyliJo Godfrey: “LINKS teaches us how to be more kind to each other.” 

Read more from our districts: 
LINKS earns elective status, just in time for Inclusion Week
Buckets of kindness

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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