Pins down, spirits up

State bowling tournament promotes inclusion

A version of this column originally appeared in the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

Kentucky has created a new category in high school bowling. On paperwork regarding my daughter’s participation, I saw it referred to as the unified division.

If you think on that a minute, the name could sound like an oxymoron. But don’t tell Highlands High School’s Parker Thomas that.

On a cold Feb. 9 morning in Lexington, Thomas advanced with partner Maddie Shelton to the bowling finals of Kentucky’s unified division. Held as part of the state high school bowling tournament, unified bowling pairs a student with intellectual disabilities and one without for training and competition.

And compete they did. But even in the midst of an intense match up with Louisville’s Southern High School, there was not much division. Thomas kept getting high fives from – and giving them right back to – a man coaching the opposition.

You read that right. The opposition. During competition. In the state finals.

The crowd that had gathered around the bowlers on lanes 19 and 20 at Collins-Eastland Bowling Center cheered on both teams as they battled back and forth. Strike after strike after spare. Pins crashing. Spirits soaring.

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Parker Thomas of Highlands High School (photo provided)

Three NKY high schools represented

Highlands, the Region 5 champ, was one of three Northern Kentucky teams to make history as competitors in the first state tournament for unified bowling. Region 5 runner-up Simon Kenton also qualified thanks to the skills of Nick Blacketer and Mitchell Kreidenweis.

From Region 6, my daughter, Anna Mimms, bowled with partner Hannah Day to represent Cooper High School. In the qualifying round, they bowled a 120 to earn a No. 3 seed, followed by Highlands at No. 7 with a 99 and Simon Kenton at No. 8 with a 97.

In all, 13 unified pairs represented ten schools and all eight bowling regions in the state. The teams bowled two-person Baker games, in which bowlers on the same team alternate frames to bowl a complete game.

I hadn’t planned on being a reporter that day. I was there to cheer on Anna, who has special needs, and Hannah in a state championship – an event I never saw coming for my daughter, sister to two big brothers, both former multi-sport high school athletes. A daughter who tried out for bowling at a different high school three years ago with little to no chance of making it. Who was cut and, even so, tried out again the next year. Who loved bowling with Special Olympics but so wanted to wear her school’s team colors, just like her brothers had.

The girl even designed her high school class ring with a bowling ball and pins on it.

Then, for unrelated reasons, came the switch to Cooper. Bowling coaches Joe Deters and Elmer Bales said yes to Anna’s being on the school’s team. And when the state presented the prospect of unified bowling, the coaches said yes again.

That is how I found myself, on that championship morning, breathing in an atmosphere of shared knowing. It is a shared knowing of hopes and dreams amid challenges and adjustments. It is watching together loved ones with special needs achieve something their families probably never saw coming either.

This bowling division had an immense sense of unity and inclusion. I felt compelled to put on my reporter’s hat.

Sport promotes growth and inclusion

Sarah Bridenbaugh is an assistant commissioner with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. As part of her duties, she oversees bowling and is the association’s main liaison for unified sports. She was busy during the state competition gliding among the lanes, but during a break, the former high school math teacher and basketball coach talked with me.

Her enthusiasm for unified sports was apparent immediately. She commented on the great turnout and how much the teams enjoyed the tournament.

“This is an opportunity for all student athletes to represent their high school at a state championship,” Bridenbaugh said. They get to wear their school colors, do their school cheer, partner with another student and be part of a team, she added. Unified sports, she said, promotes the growth of athletes and inclusion for those with special needs.

KHSAA partners with Special Olympics of Kentucky to offer unified sports. Bowling is the second unified sport in Kentucky. Unified track and field was first offered in 2015.

Bridenbaugh said she envisions unified sports growing in Kentucky. While the state has no immediate plans, she said she hopes to have at least one sport available for unified athletes in each of the three high school sports seasons.

I could see that the competition meant a lot to her. “One kid getting that opportunity was worth all the work that we’ve done. … [It was] an emotional and spirited competition,” she said.

The unified competition was “a great way to kick off the state bowling tournament,” Bridenbaugh said. “The enthusiasm of these teams will carry over to the singles and team competitions.”

Enthusiasm electrified the crowd

Even with the tournament excitement swirling around me, I focused intently on Anna and Hannah as they bowled.

The girls had advanced to the quarter finals after the top three seeds got a bye in the first round of head-to-head competition. They were bowling against a team from Meade County High School when I heard an unfamiliar male voice cheering for Anna after she bowled.

I turned to my right to see a Meade County fan cheering on my daughter and her teammate. For the first time I noticed what appeared to be a family next to me. I got a quick reminder of what this competition was all about.

“Isn’t this great?” I said to the woman.

She agreed. She told me that she was the mother of the two Meade County boys, Parker and Brandon Whitaker. What a great opportunity for them to compete together for their high school, we agreed again. I widened my focus to include the two boys bowling against my daughter, cheering them on as well.

The Whitaker brothers won 99-70 and went on to the semi-finals, losing to Highlands 140-93. It was during that game that I first noticed Parker Thomas. As my husband put it, his celebrations at each frame he bowled “electrified the crowd.”

Highlands, and the ever enthusiastic Thomas, moved on to face No. 1 seed Southern in the final.

Coach happy to be involved

When Highlands girls and boys bowling coach Glenn Schmidt first learned of the unified division, he was less than enthusiastic.

I caught up with the coach, who owns La Ru Lanes in Highland Heights, during a break between the unified and singles championships. He told me that the prospect of coaching in another division left him unsure and wondering “How am I going to do it?”

But that all changed at the tournament.

“This is what bowling is all about,” he said. “It means the world to these kids.”

While Schmidt has had bowlers with special needs on his team for years, he appreciates the recognition and opportunity for inclusion they get in the unified tournament.

“I can’t say enough good about it,” he said. “I was completely wrong about it in the beginning, and I’m so happy I got involved.”

Schmidt said he had already talked with other coaches who didn’t participate this year but plan to next year. The word is going to spread about the success and support of this tournament, he said.

“I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger with leaps and bounds.”

All-around victory

The morning came to a crescendo as Highlands took on Southern in the finals. Fans that had been spread out among the lanes all morning gathered in to focus on the four bowlers. Joining Thomas and Shelton from Highlands were Dallas Derringer and Nathan Burnett from Southern.

The back-and-forth was intense as both teams displayed the skill and focus that earned then a spot in the finals. In the end, Southern prevailed, 191-169. The teams had spurred each other on to their best scores of the day.

All of the tournament bowlers gathered for a group photo, and all who competed in the quarter finals and above got their name called to receive an award, amid snapping cameras, from KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett.

Still, just to be here was a victory. Not only for the athletes, but the families, the coaches, the tournament organizers, the friends who came to watch. Who knew that knocking bowling pins down could raise so many people up?

The bowlers displayed “outstanding sportsmanship,” Bridenbaugh said, and set an example for a lot of athletes. She pointed out that at the end of the tournament, Thomas immediately went to Derringer, shook his hand and hugged him.

I didn’t catch those gestures. But I did hear Thomas after he had walked away from the lane toward those who had been cheering him on.

“Second place. That’s OK,” he said with the enthusiasm the crowd had come to expect and appreciate.

Yes, Parker Thomas. That’s OK. That is so much more than OK.

For complete results of the unified bowling tournament, click here.

KHSAA offers an online presentation for those interested in learning more about unified bowling, including information about how to get started at your school, here.

Top photo by Tim Webb/KHSAA

 

Night to Shine prom grows

Local church part of worldwide event

When guests with special needs dance the night away at Florence United Methodist Church on Feb. 10, they will be part of an international event.

Night to Shine is a prom program sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation to share God’s love for people with special needs. It’s designed to provide an unforgettable night of fun where guests are treated like kings and queens. And they get the crowns to prove it.

In all 50 states and in 11 countries, 375 churches are designating Feb. 10 as Night to Shine, according to the foundation’s website. Churches that want to host a prom apply to the foundation, which provides help and guidance, including manuals, prom kits and funds. The prom program started in 2015 with events at 44 churches. The number jumped to 201 last year.

That’s when Florence United Methodist Church got involved. Now it’s preparing to host its second prom, and if registration numbers are any indication, the night will shine brightly in Northern Kentucky.

Church member Kevin Meyer is organizing the event. We talked last week at the church, on Old Toll Road, during breaks at orientation and training for Night to Shine volunteers.

After crowning about 70 guests at its first prom last year, the church had planned this year for 85 guests, Meyer said. A recent spark in registrations, however, prompted organizers to regroup and refigure. They created more space for guests and accepted more registrations, bringing the total for the night to 105.

Still there’s a waiting list. While organizers want to welcome as many guests as possible, Meyer said, they must balance that with ensuring a comfortable space.

Last year’s event had a lasting impact on the church, Meyer said.  Seeing how God worked, how the volunteers focused on the guests, how much genuine love was shared –  these aspects made the prom “one of those life moments,” Meyer said, when you know “this is how you make a difference.”

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Guests fill the floor at last year’s Night to Shine prom at Florence United Methodist Church.

Royal treatment

The first stop on prom night will be check-in at Erpenbeck Elementary on Wetherington Boulevard in Florence. That’s where guests, who must be at least 14, will meet the volunteer buddies who will escort them for the night. Need hair and makeup done? That’s covered here. Guests can get their shoes shined too.

What about flowers? Guests can select boutonnieres and wrists corsages. And they can have their photos taken. Those photos, if all the technology runs smoothly, will be part of the gift bag they’ll receive at the end of the night.

Next a limousine will whisk them from the school to the church, less than a mile away. At the church, buddies will crown the guests, who will then walk the red carpet amid cheers from adoring fans and camera flashes from paparazzi.

Jeff Evans from Christian radio station STAR 93.3 has been tapped to announce each guest, and FOX 19 morning anchors Dan Wells and Kara Sewell are slated to greet each guest at the end of the red carpet, Meyer said.

Once inside, guests can enjoy heavy appetizers from Barleycorn’s, Gigi’s cupcakes, karaoke, music, dancing, a recorded message from celebrity athlete and foundation founder Tim Tebow and a balloon drop. A quiet room will be available for guests who may need a break from the activities.

For safety, all volunteers are required to have background checks and training about disabilities. Also, nurses, emergency medical technicians and law enforcement personnel will be at the church and school to help ensure everyone has a healthy and safe time, Meyer said.

Parents and caregivers who prefer to stay on site are welcome to visit a respite area offering food, games, movies, activities and a place to talk with one another.

While the Tim Tebow Foundation provides funding, Meyer said the church couldn’t host as big of an event without the help of area businesses, who are pitching in with donated and discounted goods and services. Add to that the 275 volunteers, and you’ve got a community coming together for the special night.

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Mike Dardis of WLWT was an emcee at last year’s Night to Shine. Prom organizer Kevin Meyer is pictured on the right.

Fun with friends

Kelsey Coleman is looking forward to the big night and has happy memories from last year’s prom, she told me over the phone earlier this week.

“It was fun when we got to ride in the limo with the escorts, and we got to walk on the red carpet,” she said. Her absolute favorite thing? “I had fun dancing with all my friends.”

Brigitte Coleman made sure her daughter got signed up as soon as they heard registration was open for this year’s prom. “She did not want to miss it,” she said.

Brigitte said she appreciates the February prom being held in addition to the Royal Prom, which occurs at Crossroads church in September. A prom around Valentine’s Day creates an opportunity for couples and friends to celebrate together, she said.

Even though she did not use the respite area, Brigitte said it was a welcome offering. And she said she enjoyed seeing Kelsey get to ride in a limo.

Events like the prom help people with special needs expand their social circles, Brigitte said. They meet each others’ friends, she said, and create relationships with volunteers so that they are included more in society.

“I would love to see other things come from this at other churches,” Brigitte said.

A need to help

Catherine Willis sat in one of the blue-cushioned, metal-framed chairs at Florence United Methodist Church last week waiting under the high peaked ceiling for orientation to begin. A first-time Night to Shine volunteer, Willis is a paraeducator at Ockerman Middle School. She sat with her daughter Emily Edwards, a teacher at New Haven Elementary in the autism unit, who had told her about the volunteer opportunity.

“We needed to help,” Willis said. “[Everyone] should have an opportunity to enjoy every aspect of life, and they shouldn’t be limited by any perceived disability that they have.”

People with special needs, she said, should be surrounded by people who want to bring out the best in them.

Volunteers at last year’s prom also benefited from the experience. “I think we learned a lot from the guests about how to enjoy life,” Meyer said.

He noted how grateful the church is for support from the community, local businesses and the Tim Tebow Foundation. “The response from the community to this event,” Meyer said, “is just an example of the type of community we are all blessed to be a part of.”

Photos provided.