NORTH CANTON  Walsh University launched its inaugural season with the first round of basketball games as part of its Unified Sports Program on March 14 at the Cecchini Center. The program pairs Walsh students with Special Olympic athletes from the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

Its formation was spearheaded by Walsh’s Intramural Coordinator Nick Wright. The program has been created with the mission of promoting social inclusion through sports training and competition. It’s the first of its kind in Stark County.

"I participated in the Unified Sports Program my senior year at Ohio State and really enjoyed the program," Wright said. "I wanted to bring the same program to both Walsh and local communities. We have 20 -25 Walsh students participating from different disciplines such as physical therapy, campus ministry, student wellness and the honors program."

Wright said the program is beneficial because it promotes social inclusion, breaks down social barriers and promotes health and fitness. Paula Gardner from Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities agreed.

"We have 15-18 athletes here tonight aged 25 to 35 years old and we’ve been working towards inclusive and unified sports programming for the last few years," Gardner said. "Our athletes are very excited to be involved with the program. Everyone here has an interest in playing others outside of their Special Olympics realm."

Four teams will play in the program for four weeks. Two games will be played each evening. All four teams will play each other by the end of the four weeks. Each game is refereed by an official. Wright was the official on March 14.

Unified Sports is an integral part of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools which was founded in 2008. It’s funded through the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education as way to build inclusion and tolerance in schools. Unified Sports Programs are in more than 4,500 elementary, middle school and high school sin the United States. In addition, 215 U.S. colleges and universities with Special Olympics College Clubs on campus are providing ongoing Unified and inclusionary activities.

The remaining games at Walsh University are scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. March 21, March 28 and April 4.