While walking through the offices of the Howard County Department of Education a couple weeks back, I happened to bump into one of my old friends, Chuck Struhar.
Chuck has ties to the county that run deep, having coaching and teaching experience that go all the way back to 1975 at Glenelg High School. During our conversation, he informed me that I should look into the county's Allied Sports Program and I am embarrassed to state that I knew nothing about it.
He called it "The best sports program that we have." On his recommendation, I went to the Howard County Public School System Website and pulled up Allied Sports. After watching three professionally done segments on softball, bowling and soccer, I realized that Chuck was right. It made me look at sports differently and more clearly.
This was sport in its truest form.
For those kids in high school who were not good enough to make the junior varsity or varsity teams, or for those with special needs, the Allied Program is a good fit. Started just three years ago from a model program in the Baltimore County Public School System, the Allied Program allows these young people an equal opportunity to represent their schools in four sports - soccer, bowling, golf and softball.
Soccer is offered in the fall, bowling in the winter, and golf and softball are offered in the spring. All 12 Howard County schools field teams and all participants must meet the same academic eligibility requirements as any student who participates in extra-curricular activities. They are limited to a maximum of four seasons of athletic eligibility in any one sport, starting from their freshman year.
Chuck, who serves as a consultant to this program, believes that these are athletes. "We treat them like athletes and expect them to act as an athlete." Those students who are ineligible to play, including those 19 or older, have the option to participate as a peer helper, peer coach, equipment manager, scorekeeper or statistician.
The program allows for certain adaptations, such as for individuals in wheelchairs. The idea is inclusion. As long as safety isn't compromised, the program adjusts based on the situation.
Each program has its own end-of-season blowout. Softball has a World Series, bowling holds a Super Bowl, and soccer has its Pumpkin Bowl. Golf is run somewhat differently than the other sports, with all of its activities handled by First Tee at Fairway Hills.
Athletes who participate in the Allied Sports Programs get varsity letters, wear school jackets, attend school banquets and are considered an integral part of the county's athletic program. The program has roughly 140 athletes a season. Sixty percent are students with special needs and 40 percent are able-bodied.
In the past, these youngsters attended their high schools but did not feel part of the athletic fiber and the pride that goes with representing their schools. That, with the addition of Allied Sports, is now in the rearview mirror. Some parents for one reason or another unduly criticized Mike Williams, the former Howard County Coordinator of Athletics, numerous times during his tenure.
But, the truth is, he deserves credit for helping bring this program to Howard County.
I recommend that you take the time to watch the video that I watched, or go out and support these athletes on the field. Check out the faces of the athletes and listen to the words of their parents and coaches.
We wasted too many years allowing too many of our young people to become less than a part of their schools athletically.
The Allied Sports Program helped me personally to understand the value of belonging.