NORTH HAVEN, Conn. — With every bounce of the basketball, a member of the team called the name of the planned recipient. After every third pass came a shot.

The purpose of the exercise is to teach the basics of the sport and improve teamwork, said Courtney Babbidge, a senior at North Haven High School and a student teammate with the school’s Unified Sports program.

The Unified Sports program, which has run since 1992, is a partnership between Special Olympics Connecticut and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. The program, which partners students with and without disabilities in sports, boasts more than 3,500 athletes around the state.

George Synnott, director of the program, said about 95 percent of public high schools in the state have at least one Unified Sports team. In the last few years, he’s allowed the nine CIAC league commissioners to take ownership of the program, which he believes has strengthened the program regionally.

“The net result is there are more Unified Sports tournaments and more Unified Sports kids,” he said.

Chris Reilly, a sophomore partaking in the ball-bouncing drill at North Haven High School, said the program has helped him to understand being on a team and showing good sportsmanship. Before and after the drill, he offered encouragement and a demonstration to his teammates as they took shots at the net, lining up their shots and figuring out the right amount of power to put behind the ball.

The two mainstream student coaches at North Haven High School, Babbidge and senior Laura Borrelli, said Unified Sports relates directly to their interests. Babbidge said she is considering being a teacher, possibly in special education. Borrelli said she received the recommendation from a teacher who runs the school’s Best Buddies club, which serves a similar purpose but without a sports element.

“I come with a positive attitude and I love to see their smiles,” Borrelli said. “We help them to do the best they can do.”

Leslie Fazzuoli, head coach of the school’s program, said she would like to recruit more mainstream student athletes to the team.

“They understand what it is to be on a team and it helps for them to bring that atmosphere to a Unified Sports team,” she said. “Their athleticism is appreciated, too, because it’s easier to model skills when someone is modeling them the correct way.”

Synnott said the program runs nearly all year, with tournaments in soccer, basketball, volleyball and track and field, depending on the season.

Karen Devonshuk, a retired teacher who co-coaches the Unified Sports program at Shelton High School with fellow retired teacher Mike Gamberdella, said she had no prior coaching experience before joining the program in 2012, but they both have a clear vision of what students should get out of the program.

“The special education students are the athletes and the regular education kids are the partners, and we try to give them as many chances to lead as we can,” Devonshuk said. “We really are one team.”

During track and field season, the coaches at Shelton give the athletes the full program.

“Everybody does running, shot put, a modified javelin and long jump,” she said. “We cover the field.”

Devonshuk said the program exists within a culture that embraces students of all abilities. At school pep rallies, the Shelton Unified Sports team takes to the floor alongside every other team.

“There’s a great camaraderie,” Devonshuk said. “They’re not treated as a separate group.”

The school has about 40 students on the team, a large enough number that the coaches have created three separate basketball teams based on skill level for its tournament this week.

“They’re all getting playing time,” Devonshuk said. “They’re not going to be just sitting on the bench. At the Special Olympics, they’re engaged in their sports but not with the regular education students. Unified Sports is their chance to be with a regular education team.”

Steven Zajac and his co-coach Jaye Carlson lead the Unified Sports team in Guilford. Zajac, a middle-school math teacher, said he was drawn into the program because he first saw it running at the middle school level in the Baldwin Middle School gymnasium.

“We’re looking for friendships to develop. Sports is secondary, it’s an avenue to get there,” Zajac said. “The way the kids interact and act together, it carries outside of Unified Sports.”

In Guilford, the program has expanded to include a Unified Prom. More and more clubs, he said, are adding a “unified” element.

Additionally, the students are supported by a parent and community booster club, helmed by parents, who fund-raise and support the group’s activities outside of school gymnasiums, such as the prom.

At Guilford-hosted tournaments, it’s the students doing the work of being gracious hosts, Zajac said, welcoming teams as they arrive, giving them schedules and pointing them to the right courts.

Fazzuoli said the program grows student athletic skills, but it also better hones social skills.

“I think they both get a sense of accomplishment and a sense of being a team,” she said. “I think students who do not have disabilities are able to learn how to work with students and individuals who do have disabilities, and students with disabilities have role models and develop expected skills you need to be successful in life.”

Synnott said the program is based in inclusion and having a positive impact on school climate and culture. If schools express an interest, he said he is able to visit and connect those schools with federal funding to launch a Unified Sports program.

“It’s not very expensive to run, and it’s very sustainable,” he said.


Information from: New Haven Register,