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Unified Sports teaches the most important concept of them all: inclusion

Norwich — And there, in the sunlight and warmth of the day, dozens of kids and coaches and volunteers spread sunlight and warmth, through living the concept of inclusion: the belief that this country works best when we include everyone of all colors, religions, ancestries and orientations who learn with, play with and learn about each other.

This was an afternoon of Unified Sports at the region’s home office for Unified Sports: Norwich Free Academy, whose turfed lawn one day last week was home for 100 or so elementary school kids from Preston, Norwich and New London, all playing together.

Yes.

This concept: together.

“Unified is a program where students with and without disabilities come together, a place for everyone to be equal and to integrate into sports and into life,” NFA special education teacher Katie Beit said, providing all of us with a simple, yet substantive definition of Unified.

It was four years ago that Beit and two NFA students went to the World Special Olympics Games in California to pitch a grand idea at the Worldwide Unified Youth Leadership Conference: spread the rhythms and passions of Unified Sports within the walls of NFA into the surrounding communities.

Their pitch: perfect.

The program, under all the blue sky Thursday, was into its third year.

Perhaps some of you unwittingly dismiss Unified Sports with a “gee, isn’t that nice” and then go about your day. Once again, though: Unified should be metaphorical for all of us, at least the "us" that considers inclusion a daily precept.

“When I brought my special ed student and athlete to California (Jeff Hines, now a college student) and he pitched in front of the judges about why he wanted to spread Unified throughout our community, he started crying,” Beit said. “He said being in Unified changed his life. He was part of something. He was able to be the same as everybody else. That’s the message. It spreads inclusion. It changes their lives. For so many years, out students and athletes have been left on the sidelines without the same opportunities. Through Unified and Special Olympics, they’re given the same opportunity.”

Now for the even better part: Elementary programs reach the kids at younger ages, creating the feeling that inclusion is conventional.

“To start this Unified belief and message at a young age is where it needs to be,” Beit said. “It becomes normal and natural and a way of life. Everybody’s the same. You see the kids helping each other on the field. It doesn’t matter how fast you are or how good you are. It matters to be on a team and be accepted.”

The program’s tentacles grew into New London this year, where teacher Kathleen Cicchese began Unified at C.B. Jennings. Cicchese brought her ideas from the middle school, where she ran a very successful Unified program, with a schoolwide basketball game (among other endeavors) with schoolwide support.

“We meet once a week and the kids just kind of play what they want,” Cicchese said. “Middle schoolers come every Wednesday for kickball, soccer and other things. The kids meet other people, play with people they don’t always play with and learn what Unified means. It’s easier in elementary. In middle school and high school, they realize it’s a little different than the regular basketball team. In elementary, they don’t. This is about having fun every week.”

Special Olympics Connecticut gave Jennings a grant to begin the program. Cicchese said Jennings principal Dr. Jose Ortiz’s help has been immeasurable, giving some after-school budget money and staffing. All of this underscores the good work going on at Jennings, the school with the most New London kids in the magnet district.

“It’s about seeing that everyone really has a lot in common,” Cicchese said. “Playing sports brings the best out of everyone. We hope. But in Unified, it does. It brings all these different kids together on an even field. You see kids that couldn’t shine in something else get empowered. At the middle school, they had cheering sections they didn’t even know about.”

Bravos all around, especially to the folks at NFA who have turned Unified sports into a vocation. We could all learn a lot from Unified, whose tentacles reflect the tenets on which we should live our lives:

This country works best when we include everyone of all colors, religions, ancestries and orientations who learn with, play with and learn about each other.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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