Innovators of the Week: Sam and Seth

The following post was written by Sam and Seth, two Special Olympics youth leaders from Oregon. The pair make it their mission to strengthen inclusion in their community. Check out how they #innovateforinclusion!

After our first basketball season ended in the spring of 2017 we realized that our Unified athletes and partners were not happy that there weren’t any more Unified Sports on the calendar until September. Even though track and field is in late spring, most of our players wanted a “team” sport to connect with. To solve this problem, I wanted to introduce another sport to our Unified Sports programming. We thought volleyball would be a good fit. It was a sport that was easy to learn, one we could play indoors during the rainy spring months, and one that could fit the socially inclusive model of Unified Sports.

Just before our second basketball season ended I worked on a proposal for volleyball so I could give the idea to our principals at our Unified Sports meeting in March 2018. Unfortunately, the proposal for a third school sport was not accepted, so I decided to try and organize it myself. I was having a lot of seizures at the time, so with the help of my mom and others we were able to set up the volleyball program. Once we had all everything we needed we introduced my idea of starting an intramural program to Val Henry with NW Elite Volleyball Club. They liked the idea and wanted to help me get this going for the kids.

By adding volleyball as a third sport, we met the Unified Champion School requirements for a “Unified Recreation Sport” because we offered it to our middle schools, Alliance Charter School, and our Transition School. We also did something pretty new with Unified Sports by partnering with an athletic club to support our program.

NW Elite coaches and players came to every one of our 90 minute sessions, twice a week for 8 weeks and worked with our players. We started with 27 players who come every single day. We used practice balls to learn the game. They are softer and have more air time so players can learn to get under the ball and volley or hit over the net easier. They are also much easier for players that have sensory issues or are afraid of the ball. The NW Elite girls taught the players their positions on the court, how to serve, volley, and hit the ball over the net. They even taught the athletes some of their volleyball cheers and court etiquette. Within 4 sessions we were playing full-on matches with our players.

Volleyball is a very social game. We soon had up to 47 players coming to every session. Our players had such a good time with each other and they quickly made friends. Our partners told us they enjoyed meeting all our players and hanging out at lunch or in the hallways. For me, this was just as rewarding as basketball. Well… almost. Basketball is still my favorite sport, but I think this program is great because of the many friendships we made.

We were able to organize field trips for our players. One of them was to the West Linn Sand Pits. It was awesome. We had 4 teams playing for 3 hours and afterwards we had pizza, snacks, cookies, and drinks. All our players had a blast and lots of parents came to watch us play.

Our last week of volleyball we had a tournament. Because we had over 40 players, we made up four teams with different colored t-shirts. NW Elite volleyball Club ran the tournament — best 2 out of 3 for each match. We had a photographer there to take pictures of all of us and about 6 volunteers who helped with the games and food tables. Parents brought some food for the players to snack on and some to raise money for our program. We had a lot of spectators too. At the end of the tournament, all our players got certificates of accomplishment and the parents gave my mom and I thank you cards for starting the program and helping their kids have this third sport in their lives.

Next year we are going to partner with NW Elite Volleyball Club and we plan to invite other schools to come to more volleyball clinics run by the club. We want other schools to learn to play the game so we can eventually have a league in our area. Hopefully more schools will want to join so we can create something even bigger and better.

Our Unified Parent Group hopes to help with fundraising for this program so we can have our own nets and team t-shirts. Currently this program is free to anyone who wants to play.

Intramural typically doesn’t have competitions with other schools so we may propose to change this to an actual school-supported Unified Sport in 2021. If we get other schools interested in competitions, this would be a good thing for the school to do. We’re still Pioneer Unified Intramural Volleyball and we’re proud to represent our school.

Seth and I are really proud to be a part of this and are really grateful to Special Olympics Oregon for helping us with the Innovation Grant. It’s one of the best things I have ever been a part of. We were really happy to have the right equipment, team t-shirts, field trips so we could have more fun together outside of school.

The 2018–2019 Special Olympics Youth Innovation Grant initiative is supported through partnerships with Hasbro, Inc., The Samuel Family Foundation, the Office of Special Education Programs at the United States Department of Education, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Kantar Group, the Microsoft Corporation, Lane Global Youth Leadership, and the Lions Clubs International Foundation. Learn more about these inspiring projects at

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