Project Unify allows students with and without disabilities to play together

INDEPENDENT PHOTO: JULIA COMNES - Project Unify aims to create inclusive school environments, as illustrated by the encouraging signs in the student section.The crowd went wild after Woodburn's Jacqueline Andrade scored a buzzer beater, ending the basketball game with a 43-35 win against the Milwaukie Mustangs on Feb. 8.

The game, which took place at the Woodburn High School gymnasium, was the Woodburn Project Unify basketball team's first win of the season, which had been off to a rocky start after two consecutive losses. But Project Unify basketball isn't really about winning, at least in the traditional sense.

Project Unify is a national program that brings together students with and without disabilities through sports and other activities. The program aims to create school communities that promote respect and acceptance, no matter the student's disability status.INDEPENDENT PHOTO: JULIA COMNES - Austin Cruz prepares to shoot

Woodburn and Milwaukie are two of the 58 Oregon schools that participate in Project Unify. Those schools participate in "R-word" awareness activities (reducing use of the offensive word "retarded"), have unified sports teams and/or host inclusive games and sports events.

And for the players on the Woodburn team, winning a game has little to do with the number of points earned.

"One of my athletes told me that as long as we have fun, we won," said Omar Perez, a senior at Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology, who coaches the team. "That was really touching for me."

Indeed, the mood at the Feb. 8 game was far from cutthroat and competitive. Audience members cheered on both teams' successes, no matter if they were sitting in the visitor or Bulldog sections.

For Perez, one of the most memorable — and most touching — moments of the game was when one of the Woodburn athletes helped redirect a Milwaukie player from shooting in the wrong basket.

"It's really amazing, the environment we play in," Perez said. "There's always so much energy and a welcoming audience."INDEPENDENT PHOTO: JULIA COMNES - Coach Omar Perez (right), a senior at WAAST, has been involved with Project Unify since he was a freshman.

Perez first got involved in Project Unify his freshman year as the result of a happy accident. One day, he was walking through the high school gym when he saw some students kicking around a soccer ball. Perez joined in, not knowing that the students were Project Unify players.

Perez learned from the coach about Project Unify. Since then, Perez has participated in the program every year.INDEPENDENT PHOTO: JULIA COMNES - Kyle Spanner high-fives Jacqueline Andrade after she scores a buzzer beater.

He says that what keeps him coming back each year is getting to witness the positive experiences of the disabled athletes.

"It's rewarding to see them have an experience of being on a normal team, to see them happy and playing sports…seeing them create bonds not just with their team but with other teams," Perez said.

Perez said he hopes to continue working with people with disabilities after high school. He said working for the Special Olympics would be a dream job for him.

But for now, he's focusing on finishing the basketball season, and is starting to look ahead to the spring.

"We're working hard to get back into soccer season," Perez said.

He'll start coaching the soccer team, which will feature many of the same athletes as the basketball team, in April.

Julia Comnes covers all things Woodburn. She can be reached at 503-765-1195 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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