Play Unified encourages camaraderie among student athletes

Old Bridge High School students are playing a unified basketball game.

“Unified means that on a level playing field, you have students with and without disabilities playing as partners. When you look and oversee a team, you don’t know who’s who. There is no us and them on the court, we are truly a team,” said Old Bridge High School special education teacher Karen Lewicki.

It started in 2010 when four Old Bridge High School juniors told Lewicki they wanted to form a club with her students. She asked the teens in her class what they wanted to do as an after school activity, and they all agreed on sports. That was the start of their new club, called the ‘Buddy Team’. Karen paired athletes, students with intellectual or physical disabilities, with partners, the teens in general education.

“It’s just awesome to see the experience for everyone, to have ownership of your school. How great it is for everyone to say, ‘I’m on a team at my high school,'” Lewicki said.

In 2011, the club became part of Special Olympics New Jersey Unified Sports. Now the team is called Old Bridge Play Unified and is funded by Special Olympics New Jersey and the Old Bridge Board of Education, says Lewicki. It’s not just about sports, the students meet during the school day in a class specifically designed for their club. They do team building activities, like tying each other’s shoes with one hand, passing a ball through each person’s curved stick without speaking, or instructing someone to find an object blindfolded.

Old Bridge Play Unified now has a little over a hundred members. Students can join starting their freshmen year, and athletes have the option to remain in the school until they’re 21, which means they can stay in the program for six to seven years. Some of the students are so dedicated that after they graduate, they come back and volunteer whenever they can.

Senior Matthew Rosalie hopes to visit next year. He’s going to miss his partner, Luis Cavana. They often hang out on the weekends.

“Luis, what can I say, he’s like a best friend to me. He’s like a brother to me, really. I love him,” said Matt.

Luis feels the same way about Matthew.

“Like a best friend for four years,” Cavana said.

The 19-year-old loves basketball. His favorite part of the game?

“You pass the ball to your friends,” he said.

Luis’ mom, Carol Cavana, is thrilled her son is in the program.

“It taught him to grow into a young gentlemen. He’s made some great friendships. He’s had some great partners through the years,” said Cavana.

“I think the program is an amazing thing for the high school because kids with and without disabilities come together and they’re able to make friends but also have a good time in school,” said student Paige Giasullo.

Giasullo is a new athlete, but she says she’s already gained strong friendships.

“This bond feels so special, it just feels different,” Paige said.

Her mom, Linda, is so proud of the teen.

“She’s become more open. She just has no problem expressing her feelings,” Linda said. “I think the program, too, has given her, expanded her horizons, so to speak, in learning what all kids are about.”

“Everyone is very one of a kind, very unique, but we try to find not how people are similar but how we’re different and how we can grow upon that,” said student Dylan Ur.

“I love coming to class every day, seeing the athletes just smile and working with the athletes,” said student Prima Pellicciotta.

Now members visit other schools to talk about their nationally recognized club, compete in the Special Olympics, and the unified team even plays against the Old Bridge varsity football and basketball teams.

“You don’t want to take and put somebody on a pedestal and say, look at how different they are,” said Lewicki. “You want to put someone on a pedestal and say, look how we blend and look how we mold to come to a common answer or on a common ground.”

The team looks forward to welcoming their newest members this fall.