A school supports special athletes

There are many ways to be a Staples High School athlete. There are varsity teams, plus junior varsity and freshman. There are club sports, and intramurals.

And there is an active, enthusiastic club known as Students Supporting Special Athletes (SSSA). All year long, mainstream and special needs teenagers get together for practice, competition -- and plenty of fun.

SSSA began seven years ago, through the hard work of a varsity runner, Dan Goldberg. He and a friend, Ankur Shah, wanted to share their love of sports with classmates who -- because of physical, emotional and/or behavioral differences -- could not compete in interscholastic sports.

Janet Zamary -- a physical education instructor who taught many special needs students through adapted physical education and mainstream classes -- signed on as adviser.

The club meets Friday afternoons, throughout the year. In the fall, mainstream students help the SSSA athletes play soccer. In the winter, they play basketball. In the spring, they compete in track and field, including a variety of running events, long jump, shot put, discus and javelin.

Each season ends with a Unified Sports competition. Unified Sports are an offshoot of Special Olympics. Unified Sports combines students with special needs (called "athletes") and regular education students ("partners") together on the same playing field.

Each year the day before Election Day, Staples hosts a multi-team indoor soccer tournament in the fieldhouse. Members of the Wrecker soccer program volunteer as referees. Other Staples students help out as scorers, timers, registration workers, and medal awardees for the formal ceremony.

The annual basketball competition is held at St. Luke's in New Canaan. The track meet is also away, in Danbury or West Hartford.

All SSSA events are under the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference -- the statewide body that governs all Staples sports team. There are five levels of participation, ranging from students who are good athletes and can understand rules, to those who have no concept of team play, need one-on-one aides, and may be in wheelchairs.

The emphasis is on participation, fun and creating a team out of athletes with different abilities. All participants -- athletes and partners alike -- receive Special Olympics gold, silver and bronze medals, based on their team's performance.

SSSA members are active outside of Unified Sports, too. They volunteer at Special Olympics events, and raise funds for their own uniforms and equipment, and to donate to Special Olympics.

This year, under the direction of co-presidents Monica Mulla and Mayra Ragu, SSSA will meet during the weeks between sports seasons. "Everyone wants to keep it going, and not lose connections," Zamary explained.

The club is "a great way to develop friendships, and integrate kids into the school," Zamary continued.

Regular education students "get a good understanding of a variety of special needs, from the very needy -- some of whom are non-verbal -- to those who have difficulty understanding team concepts, to those who are very capable but highly distracted."

The regular education students "have big hearts," she added. "They're the nicest kids in the world." They are not necessarily high-level performers, she noted. "But they appreciate sports, and they want to help other kids enjoy it."

The special needs youngsters, meanwhile, "get a totally different activity to participate in. And they do it in their school community, as part of an extracurricular program like everyone else."

Success stories are inspiring. For example, Zamary said, Rachel Reichlin "epitomized the way kids love sports and this program. She had a great personality, and was very committed to practices." Rachel won the Christine Lilly Sports Award for Special Kids, and was honored at a banquet in Stamford.

Another youngster was offered a chance to travel to Ireland, as part of Special Olympics.

Just as gratifying are stories like a girl who, while shy in mainstream classes, broke out of her shell in smaller, consistent groups where expectations of team unity and helping others are consistently reinforced.

"The kids know how to work with her, and help her improve her athletic and communication skills," Zamary said.

Administrative support has been "excellent. (Athletic director) Marty Lisevick says, `I'll get you anything you need.' (Principal) John Dodig has been great. (Assistant principal and former special education department chair) Karyn Morgan comes to every soccer tournament. She loves it. And (special education coordinator) Lorraine DiNapoli, along with (special education teachers) Andrea Beebe and Sara Prior, have been instrumental in helping this program move along so well."

Zamary said, "I just enjoy watching the kids work together. The mainstream kids run the practices, and the special needs kids love being there, doing something they enjoy. It's so much fun to see what kids can do."