ORONO — Three Orono High School seniors have planned the school’s first-ever Unified Basketball Invitational in hopes of spreading messages of inclusion throughout the district and metro area.

Unified Sports, including basketball, are being played at some high schools in the area. The programs are sponsored by the Special Olympics of Minnesota with the idea that by playing sports together, athletes with and without intellectual disabilities will build friendship and understanding.

Jordan Case, Julia Rosendahl and Daniel Walker are the student coordinators who planned the tournament, which is being held on Feb. 14 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the new Orono Activities Center. The tournament features 10 teams from six schools, including three teams from Orono, as well as teams from Wayzata and Minnetonka.

“This will be our first time hosting a Unified basketball invitational, and the kids are extremely excited to play in the new athletic facility,” Michelle Swenson, a math teacher and Unified program leader, told Lakeshore Weekly News.

Case and Rosendahl got involved in Unified Sports at Orono High School when they were sophomores, telling Lakeshore Weekly News they both took a special interest in Unified basketball. They both played the sport, so they became Unified basketball coaches.

That’s how they came up with the idea to host the school’s first-ever Unified Basketball Invitational.

The Unified Sports partner concept, where an athlete with disabilities is partnered with a partner, they work together in sports, but that partnership transfers beyond the sport and the field or court to the school environment, they said.

“Unified sports is so important because it builds an understanding of acceptance and inclusion on the court, field, or track that then carries through the halls and into the classes of the high school,” Swenson said. “The students build friendships and understanding of one another, and they see one another for all they have to offer. ... It gives students an opportunity to become leaders, mentors and (advocates) for inclusion of all.”

Since getting involved in Unified Sports, Case said she’s learned that “inclusion goes beyond the typical boundaries you’d expect.” The Special Olympics Unified concept begins with people with disabilities, but Case said she’s seen that extends to everyone.

“The biggest thing we hope to spread around the metro [with this tournament] is that every school should have a Unified program,” Case said, noting it does not only great things for students with disabilities, but in changing the mindset for students who witness it.

The tournament is not open to the public, but families of athletes and Orono students are invited and encouraged to come watch, with the student coordinators hoping watching students who watch the invitational will help spread the message of inclusion further within the district.

Melissa Turtinen is the community editor for Lakeshore Weekly News and Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about adding context to stories and informing people about what's going on in their community. She enjoys being outside, traveling and good beer.

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