Saturday, July 2 2022

Wherever Rosemary Parisi goes in Mount Olive, she meets people who know her daughter, Gabriella.

GiGi, who has Down syndrome, was a year-round general education athlete at Mount Olive High School and Homecoming Queen. She even appeared on a Times Square billboard sponsored by the National Down Syndrome Society.

Sports have been key to GiGi’s popularity, surprising even Rosemary, a special education teacher at MacKinnon Middle School in Wharton.

GiGi was on Mount Olive’s field hockey, basketball and softball teams alongside his neurotypical peers. She also participates in Mount Olive’s Special Olympics Unified Athletics Program, which mix of students with intellectual disabilities and neurotypical partners.

Clubs, teams, and unified events often require lower time commitments than their general education equivalents. But there are few limits to what can be called unified, or how inclusive these programs should be.

Gabriella of Mount Olive "GiGi" Parisi is ready to pass the baton to Matt Montello in the 4x200 at the NJAC Unified Track & Field Championships on May 24, 2018 at Jefferson Township High School.

Morristown’s David May thinks Unified is more restrictive than promised by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability. The related Persons with Disabilities Education Act provides more than 7.5 million eligible children with disabilities with appropriate, free public education – in the least restrictive environment – ​​and guarantees special education and related services. .

May would prefer students with special needs to compete alongside generic athletes on one team. But Unified doesn’t allow in-season varsity athletes to be team partners, so their backgrounds and activity experience vary.

“All Unified has done is make it the most restrictive environment in the whole place,” May said. “Some parents are just happy that their kids are active and don’t have the nuance of what it means to be separated from the unified team and not connected to the other (gen-ed) team. … It gave opportunities for the children to play sports, but it is not the least restrictive environment.”

Separate but unequal?

Morristown's Ryan May smiles after Wednesday's swim meet against Seton Hall Prep in Morristown.

Autism never stopped Ryan May from making the Morristown swim team, which has included several swimmers with physical and intellectual disabilities over the years. David May cooked breakfast and drove Ryan at 6 a.m. to practice almost every school day for six years.

Ryan competed in about half the competitions during his high school career, wearing the same burgundy suit and bright orange cap as everyone on the roster. Between events, he usually cheered on his teammates from the end of the bleachers closest to the starting blocks. Ryan, who turns 24 in July, didn’t talk much, but generally smiled and gave thumbs up.

“What I say to parents who are first diagnosed with a diagnosis, whether it’s Down syndrome or autism or something else, ‘You will always be their parent. What you have to become is a crazy lawyer,'” May said, co-founded Kids2Kidsa Morristown non-profit organization that mentors children with special needs through neurotypical peer-led activities.

“If you have a child with special needs, you realize very early on how isolated you are. They are not invited to anything: birthday parties, events. … It is so painful not to involve these children in anything.”

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Trying to provide opportunities for a larger population of student-athletes, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced a partnership with Special Olympics New Jersey at the Meeting of Champions in June 2016. At the time, there had approximately 60 unified champion schools, promoting acceptance, respect and dignity for all students.

There are more than 250 in New Jersey now, and SONJ COO Bill DePonte hopes to have at least 300 by fall.

“Inclusion has been around for a long time and it means different things to different people,” DePonte said. “For us, it’s about engaging individuals of all abilities.”

Jeremiah Moses of Pennsauken competes in the long jump at the NJSIAA Unified Track and Field Championships on June 8, 2022 at Franklin High School.

Champion schools are supported by funding from the United States Department of Education and New Jersey, although DePonte said they are encouraged to become self-sufficient. SONJ grants support items such as coach and club advisor allowances, uniforms, travel, officials and technology.

The NJSIAA currently sponsors Unified Basketball and Bowling in the winter and athletics in the spring. Unified Swimming will be added to the roster this winter, with a mixed relay slated to take place at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in March.

“It’s cool to meet new people and participate in different activities,” said Pennsauken freshman Jeremiah Moses, who plans to try out for the football team in the fall.

“I bring good energy, good sportsmanship, just good vibes all around. We’re like one big family.”

Sparta's Jake Sabo (right) and Theo Pierce run the 200 meters at the NJSIAA Unified Track and Field Championships on June 8, 2022 at Franklin High School.

Sparta and Mount Olive were the top two major schools at the inaugural NJSIAA Unified Athletics Championships on June 8 at Franklin High School. Morristown won the small schools division.

In recent years, the handful of unified events have been mixed into the Group Championship schedule, splitting teams into multiple venues.

“After 50 years in business, Special Olympics knows it needs to do better,” said Kelly Ann Kieffer, vice principal of Voorhees High School, vice principal of Voorhees High School, the first in New Jersey to be recognized as a Unified National Champion School.

“Unified is one way to do it. The students I support couldn’t play sports or play the game without Unified. … We have significant (disabled) students, and they couldn’t access the environment the least restrictive, not for a second.Our main goal is that every student can access their high school experience to the best of their abilities.

The best of both worlds

Rosemary Parisi said GiGi “flourished” once she got to high school through sports. She loved field hockey so much that Rosemary bought her a stick, balls and a net to practice in the family yard. She scored 150 points during her basketball career, appearing in both college and JV games “whether they win big or lose big,” according to Rosemary Parisi.

GiGi got into softball three years ago, and although she rarely made it to a game for safety reasons, Rosemary Parisi said “her role is to be in the dugout, to cheer all the girls, to help the coach (Bill Romano) when he gets too stressed.”

“It takes a lot to be part of a gen ed team: a lot of stamina, understanding, good behavior, good health,” said Rosemary Parisi. “You need to have a coach supporting him. You need to have an assistant in the background if something happens. If there are health issues, people need to be trained. We’ve all worked really hard to make that happen. produce. GiGi is the poster child for inclusion on a sports team, but that’s just because we got it right. Not everyone can do that.”

GiGi is now 22 and has just graduated from Mount Olive High School. Rosemary Parisi hopes her daughter can volunteer as a mentor or coach for the Unified program in the fall to maintain “the camaraderie of a team.”

Michael McCloskey, a 17-year-old from West Milford, celebrates after winning the 1,500 meters at the Special Olympics USA on June 7, 2022.

It’s something Michael McCloskey was looking for when he joined West Milford High School’s cross country, bowling and track teams. But when he tried out for Team New Jersey ahead of the Special Olympics USA, Gina McCloskey told her son, “Now is your time to shine. This is your home.”

Michael McCloskey, a sophomore with autism and seizure disorder, found himself on ESPN’s social media feeds after a last-second comeback in his 1,500-meter heat June 7.

For three weeks before the U.S. Games, McCloskey shifted from general track training to Special Olympics training on Tuesdays and Thursdays — often accompanied by both longtime partners senior Chase Appell and junior Wyatt Space. West Milford Unified date. On Sundays, Gina McCloskey drove her son and Hewitt’s Destiny Gerety two hours from the New Jersey team’s practice in Point Pleasant.

“Special Olympics gives everyone a place to be completely themselves. You don’t have to put on a show for someone else,” said West Milford Special Olympics coach Kristi Clave, who teaches multi-disability classes at Maple Road Elementary in West Milford.

“Unified changes cultures if you do it right. If you find a few really great kids and a few partners who aren’t involved in anything…you put them on that team and give them purpose. You’ll change Not just kids with needs special, but these kids that never felt needed and never felt loved, that’ll make them all a part of something.

Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and DailyRecord.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.

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