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Virtual Unified Spring Sports Team Partners Show The Way



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When Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue and Newtown High School Athletic Director Matt Memoli gave the go ahead “to work with our teams” as schools shut down due to the novel coronavirus, Newtown Unified Sports Team Coach Kirsten Tuz was ready to go with her idea for keeping the team members “active and connected to their friends” — in a virtual way.

“These athletes are used to having their typical peers with them,” said Tuz, so her goal was to find the best way for the Unified Team members to “see” their typical student partners.

“I took all the basketball athletes and their partners and asked, ‘Who wants to be involved?’” she said, and received back 18 responses. That is low, Tuz admitted, for a normal spring season when she would expect around 40 partnerships, but “I got what I got,” reaching out through social media and e-mails to form the Virtual Unified Sports Team.

She chooses two of the typicals who have signed up each week, and sends them an activity of the week. The students are asked to make a video of themselves demonstrating that activity, and return it to Tuz. Then each Tuesday and Thursday, she sends an e-mail to the virtual team — the parents, partners, and paraeducators who help — with the video and an encouraging message.

The virtual team members in return are requested to then send back pictures or videos of themselves also doing the activity. Tuz posts the responses to the group’s private Facebook page, and also to the @nhsunifiedsport Twitter account, “so that they can see what each other is doing,” she said.

The coach took part in a Zoom meeting of other Unified Sports Team coaches in the state, Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Unified staff, and representatives of the Special Olympics on April 29, “to provide us with opportunities for our teams and to let us know what is going on, on their end,” Tuz said.

Tuz is particularly grateful for the participation by the typical partners in making the virtual team a success, as well as the paraeducators who support the effort.

“[This effort ] has been put upon the partners. This is their time to be in the spotlight,” she emphasized.

Extra Special Students

Tuz is particularly proud to offer congratulations to the partners who have had honors bestowed on them this year:

*Jordan D’Amico and Abigail Grenier on receiving the SWC One Athlete-One Partner Leadership Award;

*Zachary Calderbank and Taylor McPadden on receiving the Michael’s Jewelers/Unified Sports Michael Savage One Athlete-One Partner Teammate Award; and

Abigail Grenier on receiving the CIAC Unified Sports Scholarship Essay Contest.

Miles Dievert is one of the student leaders for the Unified Track team.

“Part of what I do for this virtual sports season is I make instruction videos for the partners and athletes. I usually make these videos about stretches or activities that keep all the students active while we are stuck in our houses,” Miles said in an e-mail to The Newtown Bee.

He has also been connecting with some of the athletes. “This is not an easy time for anyone,” he noted, “so I want to make sure that I am there for these athletes if they need me.”

Having the ability to still be a part of the program during this time of social distancing, when he has missed out on so many of the usual senior year activities, “is a gift for me,” Miles shared. “It has been hard thinking about all the things that I have missed out on due to the pandemic, but I am grateful that Unified is still apart of my senior year.”

Not being able to give in-person encouragement is challenging, he added, “but seeing their smiling faces in the videos and photos of the athletes completing their daily activities lightens up my day and gives me the strength to look on the bright side of this pandemic; it can’t stop Unified.”

Tuz praises Miles as not only being a reliable Unified Spring Sports partner but as part of the leadership team “since his junior year,” the young man has represented Newtown Unified Sport “for the past two years at the CIAC Unified Sports Youth Leadership conference.”

Nora Kliczewski, a Newtown High School sophomore, who Tuz noted has been involved “since her freshman year in all three seasons of Unified,” is also helping the program by being a partner.

“Our job is to send back videos and pictures so that they athletes can follow along and participate at home,” Nora wrote in an e-mail. “Virtual Unified Spring Sports is helping me, because it is a bright spot in my day during quarantine. It reminds me that I am still putting a smile on someone’s face, even when I can’t see them. It also puts a smile on my face because it is something I love to do,” Nora wrote.

Like Matt, she also finds it challenging to not see the team members in person, but enjoys participating for “the feeling that they still are connected to us, and we are still connected to them. They are such a big part of my life and knowing that I am still connected to them is such a reward.”

A Player’s Input

Will Eagleson, a sophomore at Newtown High School, has been involved with Unified Sports for four years. He has participated in soccer, basketball, and track with the Unified teams.

According to his mother, Dawn Eagleson, Will has been watching the videos/demonstrations by the virtual team partners. His favorite, Will shared with her, was when one of the partners was showing how to do the long jump.

Will told his mother that the videos have helped him stay connected to the Unified team; he misses the team “so much and it’s been fun seeing the partners online.”

Life Changing Experience

Tuz counts on paraeducators throughout the year to help make the Unified Sports program a success, as well. Two paraeducators involved in the virtual team are Nichole Marrazzo and Glenn Stiewing.

“I have made a video of my family playing Frisbee in the yard, trying to encourage the athletes to stay active and get outside moving while at home,” shared Marrazzo in an e-mail. “I have also sent Kirsten Tuz some pictures of me trying to use a hula hoop, walking our dog, and demonstrating some balance exercises that she was able to share with all the Unified Sports families,” she said.

The online activities have helped Marrazzo continue to feel connected to the Unified program. Like the youth leaders, the paraeducator regrets not being able to offer in-person support “and cheer for everyone. My hope is that by Coach Tuz sending out videos and pictures it will help us all stay connected and will inspire the athletes to get outside, get moving, and be active.”

Stiewing had just started this spring as a paraeducator at Newtown High School, he said in a recent phone interview, when Tuz asked him to get involved with the Unified Sports program.

“I did, with the basketball team,” recalled Stiewing, “and it warmed my heart, seeing kids with disabilities and the typicals playing together.”

Stiewing thought the team would miss the spring season altogether when Newtown schools were suspended in March, so he was pleased when Tuz announced they would have a virtual team.

“The virtual way is pretty cool,” Stiewing said. “One day, Kirsten had me do a video. I was in my exercise clothes, and had just come in from a run on kind of like a gray day.”

His video encouraged the team members to “keep moving,” whether they were inside or outside. Though the video quality did not allow it to be shared, Tuz did send an e-mail with Stiewing’s comments to all the participants, and he hopes to have better success with the next one.

“It still warms my heart to be a part of it, even though we are distance learning,” said Stiewing. Being a part of the Unified Sports program has “changed my life,” he added, “since the first time I stepped on the court and saw what was going on.”

Amelia Hufschmied gives a thumbs up as she shares some moves she hopes will inspire her Virtual Unified Sports Team members.—photo courtesy Kirsten Tuz
Emi Rosenthal’s canine pal keeps watch as Emi demonstrates a stretch for Virtual Unified Sports Team video viewers.—photo courtesy Kirsten Tuz
A smile from Nora Kliczewski is an extra message sent via her video for members of the Virtual Unified Sports Team.—photo courtesy Kirsten Tuz
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