By VANESSA STEVENS
On May 30, about 150 people— families, teachers and coaches gathered on the back lawn of Hubbell Elementary School to witness students run, catch, throw, laugh and play during Bristol’s second annual Unified Sports Day.
Though originally a rain date had been set, arrangements were made instead to hold the event inside if needed.
“The children were so excited that we decided to hold the event today, no matter what,” Hubbell schools’ extended resource teacher Barbara Mc Lean said. Barbara has spearheaded the program at Hubbell elementary for the past two years.
A registered program of the Connecticut Special Olympics, Unified Sports partners athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without intellectual disabilities but are of similar age and sport skill, to learn basic sports skills together. The program fits Hubbell School’s special education mission which ensures any and all students receive specially designed, high quality instruction to enhance each student’s academic, social/emotional and behavioral development in the least restrictive ways.
Unlike the Unified Sports’ middle and high school levels—who compete to win—Barbara says the focus among her fourth and fifth graders is on making new friendships, improving self esteem, and fostering positive changes in attitude, behavior and performance.
“Everyone that participates is a winner,” she said.
Last year, she said, there were team building activities such as dodgeball and tag.
This year—with a strong team in place—the school wanted the 2014 edition of the program to be more “sports specific” and to more closely model the Special Olympics.
Sponsored by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), students participate an hour after school one day each month: soccer in the fall, basketball in winter, and volleyball and track in the spring. Bowling is year round.
Barbara expanded the program this year to area elementary schools Ivy Drive and Stafford school.
A total of 56 fourth and fifth graders participated, including 16 special needs students. Students with extensive needs had two partners.
Beth Rasmussen, the Elementary Unified Sports coordinator, said “The CIAC also sponsors the regional high school level event each year, which is a great way to celebrate annual progress.” Beth would also like to see middle and high school children become involved, just like when high school football players host clinics, she said.
“There are 800 elementary schools in the state,” Beth said. Unified Sports have also have taken place in West Hartford, Glastonbury, and Middletown, which last year brought together seven elementary schools for the Unified Sports.
“We stress the details, but at the end of the day, if you see smiles on the children’s faces, the event was a success,” she said.
There was also a special surprise visit from Rocky, the New Britain Rock Cat’s mascot.
“It’s nice to take them [the children] outside of academics and just have fun,” Stafford school teacher and Unified Sports coach Kristin Kautz, said. Through this experience, she witnessed first hand new friendships being built.
“The children connect, whereas during the school day, there is less opportunity to do so.”
Stafford school fourth grader Elijah Johnson who was paired with Dante Marciano said the whole experience was “good.”
“Even though I already know how to shoot a basketball and kick a soccer ball, I never played sports before. It was so much fun.” he said.
Thirteen-year-old Louis Chiarillo, cheered brother Luke from the sidelines. Since fourth grader Luke has been learning how to play sports through the Unified Sports, he’s excited to have Luke jump in with the many sports Louis plays at home.
Luke’s father Robert is appreciative of all the moral support Luke received from the school and from his Unified Sports partner, Dylan Bradley, also in the fourth grade. “It’s a chance for Luke to play with children his own age and all the interaction brings Luke out of his isolated [autistic] state,” Robert said.
Luke’s mother Connie loves that her son is learning direction and teamwork—all vital life skills.
Just as the last game ended, it poured and everyone raced to pack up their lawn chairs, blankets, and sports equipment and file into the gymnasium to receive their medals, and later the cafeteria to celebrate with Subway sandwiches and soft drinks.
The rain held out just long enough for the games to finish.
“We lucked out getting to again hold the event outside,” Barbara said. “It’s been a great year. I know it made a difference in the children’s lives. It’s fun to watch it all come together and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the principals and the paraprofessionals of each of the schools.” Barbara said. “I’m grateful.”
Barbara has not only noticed a positive change in her students over the year but has witnessed the growing leadership skills in the regular education students.
Samantha Kavenagh, 10, who is headed into middle school next year, paired with Genna Sokolow, also 10, said she learned a lot from leading Genna through the “awesome” Unified Sports experience. Sam felt a personal reward in observing Genna’s confidence grow in skills like hitting the volleyball and shooting basketball, and because of her experience Sam is excited to continue to participate in the program in the years to come.
“I want to be just like Mrs. Mc Lean,” she said.