by Jamie Christensen  |  Submitted Photos

An idea. A passion. A movement.

Inclusive Sports in the Bismarck Public Schools (BPS) was an idea which emerged during the summer of 2017. BPS athletic directors saw that Inclusive Sports—a program that combines students of all abilities onto the same team and allows them to compete for their school—was a hot topic nationally.

In other parts of the country, largely through collaborations with Special Olympics, high schools have been establishing inclusive sports leagues. A handful of states have a form of Inclusive Sports sanctioned through their high school activities association, and still other states are creating programs at the collegiate level.

True classroom inclusion and peer-to-peer mentorship classes in North Dakota have already been bringing students of all abilities together, and it was clear in Bismarck that taking this next step into inclusive sports programming would build upon that—taking those friendships and opportunities to the next level.

“When we surveyed students to gauge interest last spring, it was evident we had many students who believed in inclusion,” says Ben Lervick, Century High School activities director. “Our passion and drive really comes from our youth and their demand to include all students.”

In August of 2017, the school board approved launching the program at BPS, providing salary funding for coaches and site coordinators. Fundraising was identified as a need for equipment and facility costs. Based on student feedback, this first year includes flag football, bowling, and track.  

This is the first school-based program in the state and it caught the attention of a couple whose son with special needs is currently in elementary school.

“Just in my lifetime, I’ve watched kids with special needs go from being imprisoned, hidden away, kept separate and not equal, to being tolerated, to being sidelined, and slowly included in school and the community. I’ve especially noticed the progression of inclusion in sports,” says Beth Nodland. “First these kids observing from the stands, then on the sidelines as water boys and girls, and mascots.

“Then to being student managers and team assistants, to being allowed to dress and sit on the bench. Some are allowed to play—if only for the last minutes or the last innings of the last games of the seasons—usually where the other team’s players don’t really try, or pretend to try. Everyone cheers as a kid runs in a touchdown or drops in a series of perfect three pointers (which they could have been sinking all season long). It’s progress, it’s great. But we’re not done. We must move forward.”

With hope that in a few short years a strong program will be in place for their son and others, Beth and her husband, John Morrison, launched an endowment to support the fledgling BPS Inclusive Sports Program with a $10,000 donation.

The community responded with their checkbooks, too, on Giving Hearts Day in February, boosting the total raised for the program to more than $40,000.

“We live in a community that believes in creating authentic inclusive experiences for all students,” says Dallas Hinderer, Wachter Middle School activities director. He says the support has been overwhelming. “We have fans packing the sidelines during cold football games in the fall and standing room only at our bowling competitions this winter. The unwavering support from parents, community members, BPS school board, and our other high school athletic programs has been second to none. The true friendships that are being created in our practices and competitions are very powerful and are the real reason this program is a success.”

BPS is working to fully establish and improve the programming currently offered. It believes with a solid foundation, inclusive sports will grow, and would like to expand the program to the middle schools within two years.

Everyone involved hopes this spark started in Bismarck ignites a movement across the state—allowing for teams to travel to other communities for competitions. Continued development and support is needed, but if the Bismarck launch is any indication, it makes one believe that it’s only a matter of time.   

Click here to see what the students and families have to say! 

Click here to find upcoming Inclusive Sporting events: 

Search the BPS activities calendar for “Unified,” such as “Unified Bowling.”

Are you interested in helping out?

To make the Inclusive Sports Program run, BPS is in need of coaches and officials and are looking for volunteers to help make sure that things run smoothly.  

BPS is also seeking funding to help offset the cost associated with the purchase of new equipment, uniforms and rental fees associated with bowling.   If you are interested in partnering with BPS with your time and/or resources, please contact Ben Lervick or Sara Bohrer at Century High School. Click here to learn more about donating to sustain the program.

Jamie Christensen is a full time Realtor® with a background in public relations, marketing, and journalism. She also is a wife and mother of three, and she hopes all of her kids get to participate in BPS Inclusive Sports in the future.