Goodyear Estrella Foothills’ 7-foot-1 junior Noah Amenhauser stood under the basket, smiling from ear to ear, pulling down the rebounds and passing the ball to players from the Buckeye District Unified Sports Team.
It was the happiest he’d been since he suffered a knee injury that limited his season to five games.
He knows how hard those kids work, how much joy basketball brings them, and he was happy to help on this day when Estrella Foothills opened his practice to the special needs players representing the schools of the Buckeye Union High School District – Estrella Foothills , Buckeye, Youngker and the BUHSD Learning Center.
“This means everything,” says Amenhauser, who is committed to playing basketball at Grand Canyon University. “God has blessed us with so much. It’s good that we can share the love and help these children.”
The Unified Sports Team teams up with the Estrella Foothills basketball team for its annual Mental Health Awareness Game on Feb. 4, when it plays Buckeye. For half of the game, the players cheer well for Estrella Foothills, and for the other half, they cheer for Buckeye, said Chad Williams, an Estrella Foothills assistant coach who started the Mental Health Awareness game four years ago.
They will be wearing shirts that read ‘Mind Over Matter’.
In October, the Buckeye District’s Unified program was recognized by ESPN and its association with the Special Olympics as one of the top 25 in the nation of 1,800 programs.
Travis Haley, a special education teacher who coordinates the Unified program in the district, is proud to grow it during COVID-19.
“During COVID, 40% of Unified programs across the country dropped out; they disappeared,” Haley said. “Kids weren’t in school. They weren’t on campus. They weren’t able to do these things.
“We’ve grown. We’ve added six new programs during COVID, because our kids had something to do. So now we don’t just have the typical athletics, we have art, dance. We’re adding music. We’ve added esports. We have activities for kids who don’t want to go outside.”
Unified has a partnership with the Arizona Interscholastic Association and Special Olympics.
“I call us the ‘Dream Team’ because we are a little bit of everything,” Haley said.
Haley said this is important for kids who like sports but can’t form a high school team. Now they are part of their team.
“They can own it,” Haley said. “Whether it’s winning or losing, you have to do it together.
“The varsity team with the Mental Health Awareness Game fits our mission for inclusion. We all want to be a part of something. And you have to own your shortcomings as well as your strengths.
“Mental health is lagging behind for some of us, so we need to be able to talk about that.”
Williams, 39, who assists head coach Rich Gutwein on the varsity basketball team and is a teacher at Estrella Foothills, struggled with his own mental health issues in high school and college in Washington.
His story was recorded by The Arizona Republic in 2019. How he fell into a deep depression, started cutting himself, had suicidal thoughts and made his way out.
It’s an important topic that he says is brushed off too much and needs to be talked about.
His door is always open to the players.
Gutwein has recognized the importance of what Williams is doing to influence the community. It’s important that the Unified team be part of a game because everyone is dealing with COVID and how last year’s isolation when schools closed caused anxiety and depression.
“You notice some socialization issues on campus,” Gutwein said. “It’s good to get back into the rhythm.”
Tye Wisely, a senior from Buckeye High School who captains the Unified team, said it has helped him grow. He is also a member of the National Youth Council.
“This has helped me make more friends,” Wisely said.
Seve Moreno, senior point guard for Estrella Foothills, said the break in practice to help the Unified team helps the grind of a season, especially when there are more losses (11) than wins (8).
“If you look around you, you can see that everyone is happy, everyone gets a long time,” Moreno said. “We are also getting closer as a team.”
To suggest ideas for human stories and other news, you can reach Obert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.
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