Bowling for Family: How Newark Unified Promotes Inclusion Every Day

How do three pairs of siblings, with each pair having one sibling with a disability and one without, play on the same team at the same school? Unified Sports is how. And the school: Newark High.

Now in their third year of bowling and fifth year of Unified Sports overall, Newark’s program is led by coach Matthew Groot.

When asked how the program began, Coach Groot’s answer was simple. “[The students] all love sports. They pushed me a little.” His own athletic background helped, of course; Matt played basketball at Nazareth College and has coached football, basketball, and lacrosse for 16 years.

Yet until Newark Unified, he’d never coached bowling. Though it’s a relatively new program, it’s catching on fast. “The more they practice, the better they get,” said Matt. “For bowling, you get hard data to track progress.” 

Newark Unified also has a basketball team. In his first year with that squad, Matt began to understand the importance of Unified Sports.

“It made me reflect on how much I take for granted,” he explained. “Our players felt such awe and amazement just to put on a school jersey, hear their names on announcements, and hear people cheering for them. The whole varsity baseball team sometimes comes to watch. All that’s good in sports really comes from Unified.”

And of course, those good vibes never, ever come at the cost of competition. 

“The competition is still real for all of the athletes,” Matt said. “They want to win.” 

The hard work of Matt and everyone at Newark has even been recognized by Special Olympics International, who awarded them National Banner recognition in 2020. This distinction marks the highest level of achievement for Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools in the nation.

What kind of coaching style creates such a culture? Here’s Matt’s philosophy in a nutshell: “If they can grow together and bond as a team both on and off the court, that’s what sports are about. You don’t always remember the losses, you remember the times together.”

And speaking of good times together, how are those siblings from the beginning of our article doing? 

“Unified Sports are great,” said Zach, a senior player on the team. “My brother and I get to do something together besides playing video games.”

“We’re always like a family,” Coach Matt added. “This year, literally.”