PLAY UNIFIED PROMOTES INCLUSION AND TEAMWORK AT HIGH SCHOOL
Twin-Boro News - 2/23/2017
NEW MILFORD -- Inclusion and teamwork are the building blocks of a competitive sports program at the high school that, for three years, has joined students with special needs with their peers.
Largely unsung by the K-12 district, Play Unified has very quietly reshaped the lives of students with autism and other disabilities by mingling them with their classmates on the playing field -- and, as the case was on Feb. 16 -- the hardwood.
In the first-ever home basketball game for the program, the Knights topped the Paramus Spartans 28-22. But, the score was immaterial. What matters much more, said high school psychologist Paula Daloisio, is that the co-ed program continues to grow and benefit the 10 or so students with special needs who participate.
"It's a great thing for our district," said Daloisio, who coordinates the program. "Our kids are blossoming socially as a result of it."
After the game, Colleen Tambuscio, who chairs the high school's special education department, said, "It's a wonderful program that demonstrates the character of our community."
High school athletic director Joseph Ricciardelli said the district's implementation of the program has put it "ahead of the curve" in a state where desegregating special needs students from self-contained classrooms is encouraged.
In fact, New Milford and Paramus schools are in rarefied air; according to Daloisio, the Lyndhurst K-12 district is the only other school system in Bergen County that offers Play Unified. The program is funded through grants the districts get each school year from Special Olympics New Jersey.
Daloisio said the district received a $6,000 grant this year.
She said the district also fields fall flag football and winter bowling teams through the program, the latter of which practices at Montvale Lanes and competes in the annual Unified Bowling Shriver Cup.
Daloisio said kickball and track-and-field teams may form this spring.
The basketball team took to the court on Wednesday in dark green T-shirts, and the Spartans white jerseys. Those who organized the game -- refereed by Principal Louis Manuppelli and high school junior Manisha Oza -- did so in a way that made it feel like the pros were about to play. The national anthem was performed -- by special education teacher Wendy Mackey -- and the starting lineups announced over the loudspeaker.
Rules were relaxed during the game, and classmates of players with special needs let them handle the ball.
The crowd roared when the Knights scored their first basket, made their first steal, swooshed their first three-pointer. Players reacted, in kind, by raising their arms with clenched hands in triumph.
"I love it," said Tania DiLorenzo, whose 17-year-old son, Michael Fernandez, a junior with autism, is on the basketball squad. "It's all about teamwork on our team."
Nicholas Apollo, whose son, Dominic, 16, a junior, has autism and also is on the team, said after the game, "It's great because they get to experience friendly competition, and everyone cheers for both teams."
But, participation in the program does not only serve students with special needs. Sophomores Shane Callery, John DeSena and Emmett McElroy are just a few of the peers who volunteer to round out the basketball team.
Emmett, who suits up as linebacker for the high school's varsity football squad, said one of the reasons he decided to participate in the program was because some students with special needs are so-called "managers" for his team in the fall.
"They're big motivators for us," Emmett said, adding, "I wanted to give back to them."
Bill Wilde, a local patrolman and school resource officer at the high school, coaches both varsity football and Play Unified basketball. He said he has witnessed bonding between students with special needs and their typical peers.
"It's humbling to be a part of it," Wilde said after the game, as he bumped fists with one of his players. "They've really adapted, and they ask me every day for more time in the gym."