The Pacific University Unified Sports Program brings people with and without disabilities together through sporting events and physical activity.
Sarah Ufer, a sophomore and business major, was drawn to Pacific University because of their Unified Sports program and the culture she felt she could create and foster within. The Unified Program at Pacific is run through Special Olympics and is the only one in Oregon primarily for adults. The program connects people with and without disabilities through sports and encourages a healthy fitness routine.
During high school, Ufer met her best friend, Skylar, through a Unified program, and the two instantly connected. Skylar is profoundly disabled; he has Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, a rare genetic mutation that can affect development and physical sensations. Ufer favored Pacific University over the University of Oregon because Pacific felt like a home that Skylar would also like. She prioritized her college decision on where Skylar could visit her and benefit from the college program.
“One thing about Skylar that I have noticed is that when he runs, he gets into feet, and he’s able to get out of his head,” expressed Ufer. “He finds the world so disorganizing that all he can do is pace, and when he runs to music, he finds a rhythm, which is incredibly organizing to him.”
Ufer believes that everyone should have easy access to sports and exercise, and is dedicated to ensuring that people with disabilities have these opportunities in their community. After a two-year hiatus during COVID-19, the Pacific Unified program is back in person and growing faster than ever.
Before Ufer got involved and started growing the program within the Forest Grove community, the Unified program had only a handful of 5-10 consistent participants. But now Pacific’s Unified program has 45-55 registered participants, and is steadily increased numbers. Like Ufer, other Pacific student volunteers attend the weekly sporting events. People without and with disabilities come together to play basketball, soccer, kickball, and, most recently added, dance studio sessions and indoor rock climbing. The program tries to coincide with the sports seasons at Pacific for authenticity.
The group meets Mondays from 7:30-8:30 in the dance studio at Pacific in Tom Miles, and from 7 – 8:30 Tuesdays in the Harvey Clarke Elementary School gymnasium for basketball. Members exchange hugs and smiles as they pour in, and excitement fills the room. The evening starts with a large circle in which someone leads the dynamic warmup. Individuals are divided into two teams, one competitive and one developmental. The program offers accommodations based on the participant’s needs to ensure everyone knows they are part of the game.
“Everyone balls up,” explained Ufer. “These are people with autism and disabilities who rarely get an opportunity to tap into their competitive nature, and for them to be able to that space to get that energy out is really beneficial.”
Ufer aims to connect with Pacific sports teams and clubs to increase student involvement in the Pacific Unified program. Ufer wishes for more collaboration with Pacific University and hopes to secure a space at the Stoller Center to make the weekly meet-ups more convenient for students on campus.
“I have personally witnessed the mental, physical, and social well-being that this program can bring,” explained Ufer. “I’ve seen students learn their first word, interact with peers for the first time, have their first friends, and feel confident and strong. It brings life skills to the students with disabilities and work experience to the people without.” — Emily Rutkowski