ITHACA, NY -- It’s a good feeling when we see something come together and we feel compelled to say, Well, that makes a lot of sense…
Such was my optimism when I learned that Ithaca High’s Unified Bowling program had brought Helen English on board. Having been friends with Helen for 25 years (give or take), and knowing that she is an avid and skilled bowler and a longtime employee of the Ithaca City School District, it all made a lot of sense. (The ICSD’s website describes Unified Sports as such: “Through Unified Sports, students with and without intellectual disabilities have opportunities to train and compete together on various sports teams in an effort to promote social inclusion and youth leadership and to build a greater sense of community in schools.”)
I connected with Helen (who is now the secretary/teachers’ aide with the special education department), and she said “I have been bowling for 51 years and I have been employed by the school district for 25 years, so yes, I’m happy to be a part of it.” She continued, “Bill Asklar, who is a teacher at Enfield, took over the program last year (the program’s first) and when they put out the winter schedule and it included Unified Bowling, I sent an email and offered to help.”
English started bowling at the age of 4. She took her game to the collegiate level, and having known many of the students for many years, the collaboration was a very productive convergence of skills and interests. I got a smile out of Helen when I asked her about the team’s collective skill level. “We had 12 bowlers on the roster — two from the special ed program — and only one of the 12 had ever had any previous coaching. He is the lone senior, his dad owns the Bowl-O-Drome, and the rest of the students have learned from him.”
According to Helen, the coaching and mentoring played out in a few different ways. “The kids didn’t know how to keep score, and they have a lot to learn about the game,” Helen offered, “and we only had a 3-week season.”
The season was a virtual one, as the Little Red utilized the Bowl-O-Drome as its home venue, and they bowled six meets (two each against Corning, Elmira and Horseheads, the only other schools in Section IV to have Unified Bowling programs).
English was very pleased that the team was indeed a “unified” program. “I had so much fun with this group,” she said. “They were the best group a coach could ask for, and no matter the differences — in skill level, bowling experience, ability to learn things quickly — they were so supportive of one another. They were very accepting of their partner assignments, and I’m proud of them.”
The co-coach is also very pleased that some seeds have been planted for the program’s future. “Stephanie Valletta (the district’s Coordinator of Student Wellness and Athletics) went to the community-based classroom at DeWitt Middle School and brought bowling sets for the classroom.” She added, “That will get the students involved earlier, and hopefully, Special Olympics will let the athletes start bowling earlier. I plan to help with all those efforts.”
I reached out to ICSD’s Athletic Department, and Director of Athletics and Wellness Samantha Little shared these words in an email: “Second year coach Asklar and first year coach English partnered to create opportunities beyond bowling by hosting an event with a pro bowler and collaborating to create a strategic plan for recruiting and growing the program. Students improved their bowling skills, had fun and gelled together as a family despite the condensed season.”
As the Unified bowlers look back on their season, they will likely remember the friendships, the teamwork, the coaching and the fun. They will also remember what the 2021 trophies will say when they arrive: “First Place — Ithaca High School.” Congratulations to all.
One of the Ithaca City School District’s most beloved families suffered a loss last week, and I’d like to tell Sarah, Jackie and Frank Fazio how sorry I am to learn of Britt’s passing. Britton Fazio was 44, he was a fine athlete, a really good guy and he loved his family and the people he met through sports throughout his life. When I first started writing this column, Frank was (and still is) a beloved coach, Britt was a gifted athlete, and they sure gave me plenty of material. Much love to the entire Faz Family.