Photo: Robin Rothman

Photo: Robin Rothman

There are over 7 billion people on this earth, all of whom experience each day in a different way.

With the simple awareness that everyone has a different reality, Cherry Creek High School student-athlete Griffin Gharrity has started Unified Lacrosse, which bridges the gap of human experiences, and extends a hand out to those who are often unfairly misunderstood.

The incoming junior from Colorado’s largest high school has already committed to play lacrosse at Rutgers University, but right now, his focus is on helping those with physical and/or cognitively disabilities learn the sport, and form lasting friendships along the way.

Magic Moments Extended

In first grade, Gharrity’s mother put him in Magic Moments, a musical theater production that pairs children and adults who have disabilities with those who don’t. Each spring, those in the program hit the stage for a five-show run over a weekend, where 400+ people attend each performance. Gharrity volunteered there for five years until his heavy lacrosse schedule conflicted with theater practices and rehearsals.

It wasn’t until he got to high school that he was reintroduced to teaming with those who have special needs. Cherry Creek has a unified basketball program that partners mainstream students with those who have special needs.

Griffin Gharrity and a friend. Photo: @GriffinGharrity/Twitter

Griffin Gharrity and a friend. Photo: @GriffinGharrity/Twitter

“One of the coolest things, I thought, was the unified basketball,” Gharrity said. “I thought, they have their winter sport. Why can’t they have their spring, summer, and fall sport like that in lacrosse?”

With the idea taking shape, Gharrity reached out in February to Jeremy Dorr, a special education teacher, and head coach of the JV lacrosse team at nearby Legend High School.

“Griff came calling, and I thought, this is awesome,” Dorr said. “I had tried to get something going earlier and held a few one-day events, but it didn’t catch on for various reasons.”

Intrigued by Adaptive PE

Like Gharrity, Dorr was exposed to this special population at an early age. Growing up, his mother worked with adults who have special needs, and he helped her when he could. He went to school for physical education, and took an adaptive PE class as part of the degree program.

“We had to do observation hours, where we had to go in and observe an adaptive PE class,” Dorr said. “From there, I started working in the schools as a para assistant with kids with special needs.”

Dorr eventually got into coaching unified basketball.

“I remember that being one of the highlights of my coaching career,” Dorr said. “I had just gotten a head coaching job for lacrosse and telling some of the parents, ‘I’ll be honest with you. If I were told I had to choose lacrosse or unified for the rest of my life, it would hands down be unified sports.”

A Large Network of Support

With Gharrity and Dorr being advocates for those with special needs, the two got to work. Gharrity enlisted the help of five of his friends and their families to help make Unified Lacrosse a reality.

On May 19th, the group held their first of five practices, each of which being two hours long. Over 30 athletes with special needs signed up and roughly 70 student volunteers agreed to join the program.

Photo courtesy of Robin Rothman

Photo courtesy of Robin Rothman

The opportunity to compete, find joy, and be part of a team highlights the benefits of the program.

“We have a girl in a wheelchair that needs a partner to push her,” Gharrity said. “She gets really happy when she scores a goal or catches a pass. We have several athletes where most people would write them off in the game of lacrosse.”

In addition to practices, those involved, whether pushing a wheelchair or netting a first-time goal, got to play in a special scrimmage held at the annual 3D Lacrosse Denver Shootout, a major lacrosse tournament that draws over 200 teams and college coaches.

Unified lacrosse also benefited from the Denver Outlaws of the MLL. In addition to attending a game as a group, the Outlaws gave part of the proceeds from ticket sales back to the program.

‘Inclusion in Action’

It’s not only the students with special needs who benefit from unified lacrosse either.

“I think it’s seeing the inclusion in action,” Dorr said. “I love seeing the moms and the dads excited about this, and living life through their kids, after thinking their child would never be part of a team.”

The benefits extend beyond the lacrosse field, too.

“I think there is a certain barrier that exists, at least at Cherry Creek, between the special ed kids and us,” Gharrity said. “It’s not because we don’t want to help them, or we don’t want to be friends with them. It’s because we don’t exactly know how to. I think one of the things that Unified Lacrosse does is it gives kids a platform to interact with each other and build friendships.”

Dorr takes a “hands off” approach to coaching, letting Gharrity and his friends essentially run the program. It’s an added responsibility for an already busy high school student, but one that Gharrity embraces.

Photo courtesy of Robin Rothman

Photo courtesy of Robin Rothman

“I think it’s just as hard as it is rewarding. I think it’s taught me so much more about how to become a better leader, how to become a better person, and how to better manage my time,” Gharrity said. “I have a lot of support around me to help.”

Realizing Potential

The goal is to make Unified Lacrosse something that can be passed down, and eventually run by the younger students once Gharrity heads off to Rutgers to pursue a degree in engineering or business.

It’s clear that the lessons from the program are front and center for everyone to pick up.

“There are so many times we as able-bodied people, we make excuses for things like, ‘I’m out of shape’ or ‘I can’t do this.’ Those special needs kids don’t allow those things to get in the way of doing something that they enjoy and that they’re learning,” Dorr said. “They don’t let stuff hold them back from accomplishing big things. Other kids tell me, ‘They show me how to compete with passion.'”

So, for Gharrity, who may try and implement Unified Lacrosse in New Jersey a couple of years from now when he goes to college, his mission is clear.

“In my daily interactions, I just want to respect everyone’s human dignity,” Gharrity said. “I’d like to help people realize their potential and where they can succeed.”

Everyone deserves to stand in their voice and chase their dreams. Lacrosse is just the vehicle.

The Fall 2015 practice schedule can be found here.