Unified Sports helps kids fit in at school

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Thu., Feb. 14, 2013
Evan Fable, an art teacher at South Windsor High School, coaches the Unified Sports team. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
Evan Fable, an art teacher at South Windsor High School, coaches the Unified Sports team. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

It's easy for a special education student to feel like an outsider at even the most well-meaning high school. But one program at South Windsor High School uses sports, volunteerism and fun to provide an exciting athletic outlet for special education students while making them the stars of the school community. That program is Unified Sports.

An extension of the Special Olympics, Unified Sports was brought to South Windsor High School by special education teacher Maggie Mortensen. She and then-athletic director Jack Longo led the program, which was eventually taken over by Bill Richards. When Richards wanted to pass the torch to someone else, Mortensen offered the coaching position to a young art teacher, Evan Fable.

A lifelong artist, Fable also always wanted to work with special education students, and Unified Sports is his way of realizing that dream. He began the position last year, and as a coach, he is working with the students on several different levels, as they practice, compete, travel and have classes together. “I get to spend a lot of time with these kids, and just one day with them releases endorphins,” Fable said. There is so much good humor to be found among the team, as well as inspiration. “The smiles on their faces, the things they say and do to each other to encourage good positive sportsmanship, is just unbeatable. You can’t match the energy that you get from these kids,” he said.

A major aspect of the Unified Sports program is its helpers. These are high school students who have signed up to help, and receive gym credit for their participation. “Without the helpers, I guarantee you the program would not be as successful,” said Fable. “The helpers are the ones that these kids look up to and listen to the most.” They help out during practices or at games, and act as peers and mentors to the special education students.

While many students in the school wanted to participate, not all of them were able to get it as a class. “To be honest, there’s a line of kids who didn’t get Unified this year who wanted to be in,” said Fable. There are some requirements to the job: it is hands-on work, and helpers should be comfortable interacting with the special education students. Helpers learn about certain conditions about special education, and the challenges the children face.

The helpers actually participate during games, and can help out in ways that Fable, as the coach, cannot. He recalls an athlete named Gabby, who was having trouble shooting the basketball. At one point during a game, the helpers congregated beneath the hoop and passed the ball to Gabby. She tried to shoot, and when she missed, the helpers got the rebound and passed it back to her, again and again, encouraging her all the while. The day she made a basket was a success both athletes and helpers shared in.

“To help them accomplish something and seeing their smile – it's the highlight of my day,” said Marissa, a helper in the program.

For another helper, Kim, the bonds and friendships she builds with special education students in Unified extend beyond practice and games. When she sees the students from Unified in the hall, there's always a joyful greeting. “They have friends their age to talk to,” said Kim. For special education students who are cared for entirely by adults, this factor brings an added sense of esteem and acceptance.

“I feel happy [when I make a basket],” said Gabby during practice. “I love playing with the helpers.”

Mia, another special education student, loves to make baskets and run with her friends. More expressive than words are the laughter and sense of fun that fills the gym as they practice dribbling or shoot hoops.

While competition with Unified teams from other schools is a crucial component to the social aspect of the program, it’s less about winning and more about having fun. Nevertheless, Fable noted that the team was undefeated during the fall soccer season this year. One reason behind that, said Fable, is that the team had a strong emotional reason to win. Fable began coaching Unified with P.E. teacher Jim Warnock. Unfortunately, Fable only had Warnock’s help for that first year, because in October 2012, Warnock and another teacher, Brenden McClay, were involved in an automobile accident from which Warnock is still recovering.

“He made my adjustment to being a new coach so much easier than what it would have been without him,” said Fable fondly. Warnock was also incredibly admired by the special education students. The incident had a strong effect on the team. “That’s what made our Unified season start off very tight-knit,” he said. “We didn’t lose a soccer game, and I think it’s because we had someone to dedicate each game to.”

Warnock is slowly reintegrating himself back into the school routine. While only teaching part-time for now, he said the Unified practices are the highlight of his schedule. “It's the greatest period of the day,” he said.

For Fable, Unified is an enriching experience that he hopes to continue for years to come. “I hope I can do this for the rest of the time that I teach,” he said.

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