Hampden Academy players celebrate after winning the 2016 Unified basketball North regional championship in 2016. The school has received national recognition for its Unified Sports programs. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Regional School Unit 22 and Hampden Academy have been at the forefront of Unified Sports in Maine. Those programs put students with mental or physical disabilities on teams with Unified partners, other students who help teach and guide them.

Hampden Academy has been rewarded for its role in Unified Sports by earning two prestigious awards.

Hampden Academy was the only school in the state and one of just 34 schools in the country that was named as an ESPN Special Olympics Unified Champion School this year. Colleges, elementary schools and middle schools also were eligible for the honor.

Winners are selected based on meeting 10 national standards, including providing an inclusive school climate and exuding a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.

Hampden Academy also was one of only two schools in the state to earn Special Olympics Banner School recognition. Winslow High School was the other school.

Special Olympics Maine will be at Hampden Academy to present school representatives and students with the banner Friday morning at 9.

Hampden Academy offers Unified basketball and track and field, both of which are sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association. It also offers Unified cheering when there is enough student interest.

Volleyball is the other Unified sport sanctioned by the MPA, and Hampden Academy assistant principal Nick Raymond said the school would like to add that some day, but he said there has not been any interest shown in it as yet.

Andrea Lee, who has been Hampden Academy’s Unified basketball coach since its inception and is going into her sixth year with the program, called the honors amazing.

“This is not about basketball [or any sport]. It is about embracing people for who they are and accepting them for who they are. It’s about tolerance and respect for all people. It is our school district saying, ‘We believe in you.’ That is what it’s really all about,” Lee said.

Lee said everyone plays a role in the program.

“It’s the community, the students, the staff, the parents,” said Lee, who is a physical education teacher at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden.

Special Olympics and Unified Sports showcase the fact that “everybody is unique and fabulous in their own way. They can shine at their own level. People with disabilities can have friendships and can thrive in a public school environment.”

“They’re being given opportunities they never had before,” Lee said.

There was a time not too long ago that people with special needs were institutionalized and bullied, Lee said.

“Now they can walk down the hallways with their heads up. They aren’t being bullied. They are being included [in everything]. They have been given an opportunity to go for a gold ball just like their classmates. It’s about seeing them interact and having more confidence in themselves,” Lee said.

She said the gym is full when they play their basketball games, which attract people from outside the school district.

“They all want to be part of this movement,” Lee said.

She said it is rewarding to see people who were on their Unified teams flourishing after they graduate.

“Kids who never thought they could hold a job are holding jobs and having careers. They are choosing to go to college,” she said. “They have confidence and the willpower to do it.”

Raymond and Lee credited former Hampden Academy athletic director Mike Bisson with being instrumental in the development of Unified teams at Hampden Academy.

Raymond said when their students come back from participating in Special Olympics events and are honored in front of the entire student body, they receive standing ovations.

“Our kids embrace what they’ve done and respect what they’ve done,” Raymond said.

One of the featured speakers at Friday’s assembly will be Hampden Academy track athlete Madison Mooers, who participated in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. Her unified partner, Rachel Gardella, will accompany her.

Lisa Bird, the director of public relations for Special Olympics Maine, will also be there.