From the outside looking in, the term “Unified Sports” sounds nice. For a high school student who has never worn an Ithaca High School uniform, or never ridden a bus to an away game to represent the Little Red, the view from the inside looking out is far beyond “Nice.”
The Unified Sports program at Ithaca High is a co-ed, mixed-ability sports program. “Mixed-ability” means that some of the students have intellectual disabilities and some do not, and when the team took the basketball court at the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, it was not just a game-changer, it was a life-changer.
Stephanie Velletta is a special education teacher in the Ithaca City School District, and when the district decided to join several other schools in Section IV, the stars aligned for Stephanie to be a part of it. She told me, “Samantha Little, our athletic director, and Martin Shaw (an inclusion specialist) reached out to me, and given I am a special education teacher and a basketball coach (she formerly coached the Little Red varsity), it was the perfect blending of two things I love.” She added, “Dr. [Luvelle] Brown (ICSD’s superintendent) was also very supportive, and has done a lot to help us.”
Providing a bit of back story, Stephanie said, “Section IV schools like Elmira, Horseheads and Corning had Unified teams, and schools, and this is the second year we have been involved.” She pointed out in an email that “there is also a Youth Activation Committee (YAC), which is a group of student leaders who focus on increasing inclusion in the school and community,” and said, “This is our second year running the program and we have experienced a lot of growth.We went from a five-member YAC to a 30-plus-member YAC, and a team of nine to a team of almost 20!”
Not to overuse the phrase “It takes a village,” but in the case of Unified Sports, that really is the case.
“We have had so much help from so many donors in our community,” Valletta offered. “Chuck from Shortstop has donated meals, the Ithaca Sports Boosters have been amazing—everyone in the community has been so onboard with the whole idea of inclusion.” She stated, “The idea of including kids in authentic ways is really not a hard sell.” Valletta talked about the fact that many of the athletes have had a connection with the local Special Olympics contingent, and she said the organization offers “some really good resources and opportunities.” There is a solid fundraising pipeline in place, and she tipped her hat to Dr. Brown, who recently took part in one of the Special Olympics’ biggest fundraisers, the Polar Plunge.
At this point, Unified Sports has not expanded beyond putting a basketball team on the court, and that is by design, Velletta points out. She said, “Some schools have bowling, and flag football, but we’re making sure we are doing it right before we branch out. We’re just trying to figure out what we’re doing, and making sure the kids feel good about everything.” When talking about the opportunity to play at the Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, Valletta is the first to admit that “feel good” is an understatement. She said, “We got the invitation to play at halftime of a boys’ state championship game, and we had been holding some open gym sessions, so we were ready to go.” She added, “We brought 20 kids, and we split into two teams. We work to increase awareness, and these players deserve to have people see the show.”
People saw the show, that’s for sure. Valletta said, “We were given VIP passes and seats, and when we played, there were about 4,000 fans there! I have never played in front of 4,000 fans. The kids felt like star athletes.”
The team has several upcoming games, and Coach Valletta would love to see bleachers full of fans, a pep band, and as much support as these deserving athletes can get. The schedule for home games is: May 5 vs. Lansing, May 9 vs. Johnson City and May 20 vs. Maine-Endwell (senior night). Away games are: May 7 at Elmira, May 14 at Dryden, May 16 at Owego and May 22 at Union-Endicott.
The website address is: https://staging.specialolympics.org/unified-sports.aspx?src=navbar Those interested can access the Ithaca Unified Twitter and Instagram pages: @IthacaUnified.