Emily Buczala, No. 25, heated up.
She hit nothing but net on a lane jumper, then buried a pair of bank shots from the same spot. About 10 feet from the hoop, in the Bow High School gym, with the maze of championship banners proudly looking down from high on the walls. With fans in the bleachers, including a woman holding a homemade placard that read, “Go Falcons.”
The electronic scoreboards, beyond each baseline, completed the scene, documenting the scoring, showing the time left in each quarter and confirming that this was no pickup game without structure or schedule or referees.
This was a unified basketball game featuring a blend of intellectually disabled students and their partners, their teammates, their fellow students. There was competition, a winner, a loser, hot shooters, high scorers.
And there was Bow High senior Emma Wilke, Buczala’s teammate, who appeared before the Education Committee this week and has emerged as the face of a movement to usher in a new era of unified co-curricular activities.
She’s No. 25, too.
“She’s heavily involved in a number of activities and she really values the unified sports experience,” explained first-year Bow High Assistant Principal Matt Fisk, who doubles as Bow High’s unified basketball coach.
“And the kids on the team absolutely love Emma. When she arrives, they immediately run to give her hugs. She exudes passion for the players on the team, and she’s a big proponent of access. She’s always at meetings leading the charge for inclusion.”
One of those meetings happened on Tuesday, two hours before game time. A hearing, actually, at the Legislative Office Building. The call went out to students in different areas, supporters of HB 1698, to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
But the holiday weekend, combined with the failure of lawmakers to announce the hearing in a more timely manner, made it difficult to attend on such short notice.
Wilke was the only student who showed up, asked by a segment of the Bow unified community to explain to the committee why this program meant so much to the school district. And why it should spread statewide.
The proposal asked for $50,000 from the state’s general fund, to be managed by the Department of Education, to give high schools the option to add programs – sports, theater, music – that would be called co-curricular activities. Leftover money would go to schools that have already joined the team.
Wilke served as the voice for change. Later that day, she’d wear a white basketball uniform, No. 25, and high-five teammates. But at the LOB, she dressed professionally, her statement perfectly typed up as she faced the committee.
“This team allows individuals from all walks of life to come together in the commonness of the game,” Wilke told the committee. “Practices have a tangible sense of elation, and games have more positivity than one could ever imagine.
“The essence of unified is found in the relationships built between every person.”
Later, outside Room 207 at the LOB, Wilke sat for an interview, a challenge considering that lobbyists and lawmakers, one by one, felt compelled to stop and thank Wilke for her caring and unselfish nature. They wanted to meet the 17-year-old girl who wrote a speech and drove downtown to reason with the committee.
“You open the gym doors and all these athletes are there and they’re excited to see you,” Wilke told me on the LOB’s second floor, explaining her excitement. “We talk about their day and they ask about yours, and it’s a very social environment, which is what they need.”