An OV senior is working to make sports more inclusive
BRANDON — Otter Valley Union High School senior Livia Bernhardt’s school life overflows with academic, community service and athletic activities.
Student representative on the district school board and class vice president? Check. Founder of OV’s new Environmental Club? That’s her. Leader of an effort to have students present awards at all-school assemblies? Of course. Straight As and National Honor Society membership? Sure. Three-sport varsity athlete? Yes, and a captain.
But another item on Bernhardt’s résumé might be closest to her heart: As an 8th-grader she helped found OV’s Unified sports program, which now includes basketball, snow-shoeing and bocce teams for students with disabilities.
Throughout her OV years, Bernhardt has volunteered for Unified basketball to play with and coach the athletes, according to OV special educator and Unified basketball and snowshoeing coach Brooke Kimball. Bernhardt is among 20 OV students who serve as “partners” with the more than two-dozen Unified student-athletes.
On Nov. 1, Special Olympics Vermont honored Bernhardt as the state’s Unified Partner of the Year. Kimball nominated her for the honor, which Bernhardt received at the organization’s State of Inclusion Conference held at the University of Vermont.
FILLING A VOID
Why did Bernhardt feel strongly enough as an eighth-grader to lobby OV teachers and administrators to bring the Unified program to the school? Answering that question means looking back even further, back to her days at Leicester Central School and her friendship there with students with learning disabilities.
She said she noticed at OV those friends were being marginalized.
“I had grown up with some kids in Leicester and coming through middle school that were kind of left out and didn’t have the opportunities that I had with other sports,” she recalled. “Like Kelsie Sunhawk, she was one of my close friends in Leicester, and she has a learning disability, so I wanted her to become involved in things that I also had the opportunity of doing. And many other students were often looked past in the hall. I was also friends with other middle-schoolers, and noticed they were also left out.”
Bernhardt at that point belonged to a student group that focused on improving inclusivity and school climate. The group attended a leadership conference that in part focused on Unified sports — which have also become a mainstay at Middlebury Union High School — as a way to achieve those goals.
“I was wondering why we didn’t have that at our school. I had never heard of that before,” Bernhardt said.
The student group worked with teachers, including Kimball, to propose a Unified program at OV. Kimball said Bernhardt was the only student who “stayed with it” during the process.
Now, four years later, the athletes snowshoe through most of the winter, transition to hoop in the late winter through early spring, and start playing bocce when the weather cooperates.
The bocce squad has a season-ending tournament in St. Albans, with teams of four athletes, ideally including one partner.
Snowshoeing teams compete at Vermont’s Winter Special Olympics in relay groups of two and four competitors, with four-member teams ideally having one partner as a competitor.
OV Unified hoop plays in a 16-team league, with a tournament sanctioned by the Vermont Principals’ Association. Kimball said if a coach can be found, OV could add Unified soccer in the fall.
Kimball said a lot of what has happened can be traced to Bernhardt’s work as an 8th-grader, but her nomination of Bernhardt for the statewide award had just as much to do with her dedication to the athletes over the past few years — and not just during activities.
“She was instrumental in getting it started, and that in itself was a big thing. And going into her fourth year as a partner in basketball she has always been the first to step up. She’s led the students on the court when she’s out there, and she does it with kindness and respect. And you can just see the connections she makes with the kids,” Kimball said.
“She’s never appeared too busy to connect with one of the athletes in the hall or in the cafeteria. She’s one of the partners that is talked about in class. A lot of our conversations turn to Unified, and it’s always Livia did this, or I talked to Livia about this, or I’m going to ask Livia what she thinks. It’s very clear in my mind she’s made a difference in their lives.”
According to Bernhardt and Kimball the Unified program has also made a difference at OV.
Bernhardt said she and her friends have made new friends.
“A lot of my friends are also partners on the team, and I see them talking to the athletes all the time now. Those relationships are now formed,” she said.
And she sees those steps as contagious in creating a culture of acceptance.
“Once people see one person doing it, they’re like, ‘Oh.’ There’s that cause and effect. When you start doing it, someone else does,” Bernhardt continued. “I definitely see that happening. People say, ‘Who is that?’ And then I introduce them, and it goes from there.”
Kimball said she notices it during her lunch duty.
“I’ve seen where a partner would invite an athlete to have lunch. And it might be weeks, and the partner isn’t there, and the athlete is still sitting with that group of kids,” Kimball said. “We still have a ways to go, but just in the three years that we’ve completed I’ve seen a huge difference, and I think the cafeteria is definitely one of the No. 1 spots.”
For Bernhardt it’s not only what she is doing for her friends, but what she is receiving in turn. To start with, she said, Unified hoop is fun.
“I’m definitely learning how to work with people with disabilities. But at the same time I’m having this feeling of total stress-free fun and excitement all the time,” she said. “Every practice I’m looking forward to going because I know all these kids; it’s the highlight of their day and of my day. Because it’s having fun together, and everything else disappears that’s going on in life, and you’re just like, this moment is perfect and we’re just enjoying every bit of it.”
Bernhardt also draws inspiration from the athletes.
“You watch them appreciate something so much that everyone else takes for granted,” Kimball said. “They’ve got challenges in front of them. And watching them overcome them is very inspiring.”
And sometimes Unified simply reminds Bernhardt not to over-think things.
“In my life I’m always struggling to live in the moment. When I go to practice they are always in the moment, focusing on the right now. That’s why I love going to practice,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt hopes to go to Amherst College to study biochemistry and math, and says she definitely wants to continue volunteering for programs that help people with disabilities.
And yes, she was surprised and pleased to get the award, but Bernhardt talked little about the event at UVM and a lot about how her Unified basketball team made her a poster to break the news to her.
“When the kids had the poster, I was like, what? It was crazy,” she said. “I feel acknowledged sometimes, but it felt really good to be acknowledged by these people. My team was really excited for me. They had the poster made, and it really warmed my heart. The ends they went to celebrate this for me, that made me feel really good.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.