Special athletes, special connections

Georgian Court University students recently joined forces with Unified Sports of New Jersey to host a basketball team for young adults with special needs.

Georgian Court students, special athletes join Unified Sports movement

EMILY SMITH RAN THE LENGTH of the Lions court, flanked by her teammates and opponents alike, and stopped just shy of the hoop. The 14-year-old planted her feet, squinted at the basket, and took the shot.

No good.

Her “coach,” biology/pre-med major Gina Ellatar, caught the ball as it bounced off the plexiglass. One of Emily’s teammates was open, just beyond the arc. And only steps away was an opponent, ready for the ball. But Emily wasn’t moving. Instead, she focused squarely on her coach.

“You’ve got this. Try again,” Gina said, sending the ball back to Emily.

The young redhead would make another attempt and miss again. And again. And three more times until the ball floated through the net, the gentle “swoosh” of it drowned by the cheers of family and friends of both teams.

 

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A year in the making

It all started with a note from the Office of the President.

Georgian Court’s Mary Williams, associate athletics director for compliance and student-athlete welfare, was asked to find out if there was any interest in launching a College Unified Sports program, an outgrowth of Special Olympics. GCU would join fewer than 10 other New Jersey schools as partners. Worldwide, about 500,000 people participate in a huge array of sporting activities designed to promote “social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences.”

Ms. Williams recruited GCU Basketball Club chairwoman Gina Ellatar, who stepped up to coordinate the Saturday games. Gina brought on seven students to help. Special Olympics New Jersey began to publicize the new partnership, drawing the interest of parents with teenagers and adult children. With the help of a GCU assistant basketball coach, Ms. Williams and the student volunteers launched the basketball pilot in March 2015. Plan are to add another sport during the 2015-16 academic year.

Unified Sports is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. The Unified Sports competitive model combines Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as teammates on sport teams for training and competition.

“For the university, it’s been pure joy,” said Ms. Williams.”That’s what our students have gotten out of volunteering with the Unified Sports athletes,” she said. “Plus, they now have a new understanding of what it means to be accountable to someone else, and that there really aren’t that many differences between us all.”

 


“Jordan rides a high when we’re at Georgian Court because he’s at a college—he’s so proud to be here and to be included.” —Marissa Schiavello


 

Gina, who wants to work as an ER doctor, uses a single word to describe the eight-week pilot program.

“Amazing. Simply amazing,” she said. “The athletes are so sweet, and when I see them smile, I know we should be doing this. For us, this is also about being able to play, have fun and make an impact.”

Good sports

Sharon Manzi remembers when extracurricular resources and activities for her son John, 31, where much harder to come by.

“Years ago there was baseball, but no great number of challenger leagues or similar activities,” the Howell mom said, referring to the former dearth of programs for those with physical and intellectual disabilities. “We are so used to traveling to wherever we can find resources that to have something in Ocean County, this close to home, is nice.”

But the program’s initial success is about more than convenience.

“Our children get to see that we’re all special,” said Marissa Schiavello, mother of 18-year-old Jordan. “We all have something to give and that’s important for society to see.”

“Jordan rides a high when we’re at Georgian Court because he’s at a college—he’s so proud to be here and to be included.”

Wall parent Rich Heaney said the same thing about his daughter Kelsey, 14. “It absolutely super charges her,” he said of the Saturday games. “She loves being with the team and with the college students.”

At the end of the season’s final game, Mai Vy Nguyen’s face conveyed a sense of sheer pride as she hugged her mom, Anita Hai.

“This is absolutely wonderful for Mai Vy,” said Ms. Hai.”And when she simply touches the ball, the crowd goes wild!”

Mai Vy, 22, has aged out of the public school system, which makes socialization difficult.

“It’s harder to be involved with the general population, which is the best way to learn and to socialize,” said Ms. Hai. “With Special Olympics, she’s so active now. She’s able to do what other can do without disabilities.”

 


LEARN MORE AT GEORGIAN COURT

» CONNECT WITH GCU ATHLETICS & THE GCU LIONS

 

Georgian Court University students recently joined forces with Unified Sports of New Jersey to host a basketball team for young adults with special needs.

Georgian Court students, special athletes join Unified Sports movement

EMILY SMITH RAN THE LENGTH of the Lions court, flanked by her teammates and opponents alike, and stopped just shy of the hoop. The 14-year-old planted her feet, squinted at the basket, and took the shot.

No good.

Her “coach,” biology/pre-med major Gina Ellatar, caught the ball as it bounced off the plexiglass. One of Emily’s teammates was open, just beyond the arc. And only steps away was an opponent, ready for the ball. But Emily wasn’t moving. Instead, she focused squarely on her coach.

“You’ve got this. Try again,” Gina said, sending the ball back to Emily.

The young redhead would make another attempt and miss again. And again. And three more times until the ball floated through the net, the gentle “swoosh” of it drowned by the cheers of family and friends of both teams.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

A year in the making

It all started with a note from the Office of the President.

Georgian Court’s Mary Williams, associate athletics director for compliance and student-athlete welfare, was asked to find out if there was any interest in launching a College Unified Sports program, an outgrowth of Special Olympics. GCU would join fewer than 10 other New Jersey schools as partners. Worldwide, about 500,000 people participate in a huge array of sporting activities designed to promote “social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences.”

Ms. Williams recruited GCU Basketball Club chairwoman Gina Ellatar, who stepped up to coordinate the Saturday games. Gina brought on seven students to help. Special Olympics New Jersey began to publicize the new partnership, drawing the interest of parents with teenagers and adult children. With the help of a GCU assistant basketball coach, Ms. Williams and the student volunteers launched the basketball pilot in March 2015. Plan are to add another sport during the 2015-16 academic year.

Unified Sports is inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. The Unified Sports competitive model combines Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as teammates on sport teams for training and competition.

“For the university, it’s been pure joy,” said Ms. Williams.”That’s what our students have gotten out of volunteering with the Unified Sports athletes,” she said. “Plus, they now have a new understanding of what it means to be accountable to someone else, and that there really aren’t that many differences between us all.”

 


“Jordan rides a high when we’re at Georgian Court because he’s at a college—he’s so proud to be here and to be included.” —Marissa Schiavello


 

Gina, who wants to work as an ER doctor, uses a single word to describe the eight-week pilot program.

“Amazing. Simply amazing,” she said. “The athletes are so sweet, and when I see them smile, I know we should be doing this. For us, this is also about being able to play, have fun and make an impact.”

Good sports

Sharon Manzi remembers when extracurricular resources and activities for her son John, 31, where much harder to come by.

“Years ago there was baseball, but no great number of challenger leagues or similar activities,” the Howell mom said, referring to the former dearth of programs for those with physical and intellectual disabilities. “We are so used to traveling to wherever we can find resources that to have something in Ocean County, this close to home, is nice.”

But the program’s initial success is about more than convenience.

“Our children get to see that we’re all special,” said Marissa Schiavello, mother of 18-year-old Jordan. “We all have something to give and that’s important for society to see.”

“Jordan rides a high when we’re at Georgian Court because he’s at a college—he’s so proud to be here and to be included.”

Wall parent Rich Heaney said the same thing about his daughter Kelsey, 14. “It absolutely super charges her,” he said of the Saturday games. “She loves being with the team and with the college students.”

At the end of the season’s final game, Mai Vy Nguyen’s face conveyed a sense of sheer pride as she hugged her mom, Anita Hai.

“This is absolutely wonderful for Mai Vy,” said Ms. Hai.”And when she simply touches the ball, the crowd goes wild!”

Mai Vy, 22, has aged out of the public school system, which makes socialization difficult.

“It’s harder to be involved with the general population, which is the best way to learn and to socialize,” said Ms. Hai. “With Special Olympics, she’s so active now. She’s able to do what other can do without disabilities.”

 


LEARN MORE AT GEORGIAN COURT

» CONNECT WITH GCU ATHLETICS & THE GCU LIONS

 

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