Unified Sports: Where smiles tell stories words can't

New London — It kept coming back to one word: isolation. Maybe that’s the worst of it. The inability to see your child as one of the kids.

And then there are these days, these inspiring events, where they are all one, playing a game, rooting for each other. Respect. Dignity. Togetherness. “Us.” Not “them.”

“So wonderful,” Kathy Seales was saying late Wednesday afternoon, watching her son, Garreck, coach the Unified Basketball Team at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in its only home game of the season.

Unified Sports is a registered program of Special Olympics, combining equal numbers of athletes with and without an intellectual disability on sports teams for training and competition. In this case: basketball.

Kathy Seales, a recent retiree from New London schools, taught special education there for 38 years. There was more than a twinkle in her eye Wednesday, looking around the gym full of the kids’ peers, many waving signs of support in their game against Mystic.

“Unified Sports make them feel like part of the culture,” Seales said. “It does everything for self-esteem. There are no feelings of isolation. I love seeing their peer partners give them the ball and keep doing it until he or she makes a basket. It’s awesome.”

Indeed. And had you shut your eyes for a moment Wednesday, you’d have mistaken Bennie Dover’s gym for Mohegan Sun on Saturday night when the champion New London High girls played before more than 8,100 people. How come? Sixth-grader Jonathan Serrano, with a little help from his friends, made a basket and elicited a momentary roar that was, as they say in the credit card commercial, priceless.

“Their friends are cheering them on and they get to show off in front of their teachers,” Kathleen Cicchese, in her third year teaching special education at Bennie Dover, said. “And they get to work together as a team.”

Their smiles told stories words couldn’t.

A week earlier, Waterford High was home to a Unified tournament with Griswold, New London and Stonington. The boys’ basketball team, about to play a state tournament game, hung around after school to officiate, keep score and cheer. The message: This is us.

“I’ve been doing Special Olympics since I was 12 years old well over 40 years in some capacity,” said Colleen Lineburgh, a special education teacher at Waterford High said. “I say to my students that we all have a disability in some way. Everybody should be treated with respect and dignity. We want them to feel included and involved in our school and our society.”

And when Colleen talks, you listen. Her friends call her the “Bobby Knight of Unified Basketball.” And just try to get into a Waterford High sporting event without paying. They should sell tickets just to watch Colleen.

“It means a lot to have the boys’ basketball team here,” Lineburgh said. “The kids hung up posters all over the school for the game. It was on the (school’s) Twitter account. When the kids hear that, they feel like they’re like every other kid in the building.”

The impact of Lineburgh’s statement is virtually boundless.

“I got involved in seventh grade,” Waterford baseball player Alex Petchark said. “My mom has taught special ed for a number of years and I thought it would be a great way to get involved. It makes me appreciate what I have.”

It makes Stonington Unified coach A.J. Massengale — also the school’s football coach — appreciate his job all over again.

“This brings together all types of different kids, from star athletes to some kids that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to interact and get to know each other in the hallways and classrooms,” Massengale said. “This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve been involved with and I’ve been at Stonington for 14 years.

“This blends things that otherwise would have been barriers. They truly rely on each other. It relates to all sports and all things. We need to be able to count on other people at times and they need to be able to count on us. It applies to so many other things.”

Bravo to all.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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