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IN THE NEWS

posted: Thu, Jun 21st, 2018

Best Buddies hosts its first Unified Track and Field event

Competing at the June 6th Unified Track and Field meet, members of Best Buddies represent MOHS.

On Wednesday afternoon, June 6, 2018, a historic track meet took place at Mount Olive High School. Mount Olive hosted its first Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference Unified Track and Field Relay to highlight Special-Education Athletes and General-Education Partners who have been competing together in the sport this season. The first annual event featured Athletes and Partners from Mt Olive, Jefferson, Hopatcong, and Newton High Schools.

The NJAC Unified Track and Field event was the result of a vision of District Supervisor of Special Services, Sharon Staszak and Special Education Teachers Nancy Gilbert and Pam Molfetto. The special education students were current participants in the Special Olympics of New Jersey under the coaching of Mrs. Gilbert, but the group wanted to take it a step further. Through the acquisition of a grant, Mrs. Gilbert and Mrs. Molfetto were able to form a competitive team unifying students in this unique track team. Mrs. Gilbert stated, "By bringing Unified Sports to Mount Olive, the special education students would have the same type of competitive opportunity in which the general education athletes did."

Gilbert and Molfetto started to learn everything about Unified Track, a sport that the Special Olympics included as part of its Unified Sports program. Unified Sports "joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team, promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences." The teachers, or coaches, began their training for Unified Sports through online trainings and specific sports trainings.

With the school on board, Gilbert and Molfetto formed their first Unified Track team, consisting of eight special-education Athletes and eight general-education Partners. The team practiced for one hour, once a week. Mrs. Molfetto stated, "Unified Track builds self-esteem and social skills for my students with Intellectual Disabilities. The students light up when its practice time and they head out to the field with their Partners. It's great to have that team sense of belonging."

The Athletes and Partners competed in their first track meet on May 24, 2018 at Jefferson High School alongside six other high schools. They brought home a first place in the Unified Long Jump due to the combined talents of Brandon Chapman and William Paoli.

"There are so many of our students, both with and without disabilities, that have never gone out for sports, but have the interest and commitment to participate" Gilbert said. "Every week we have seen improvement as demonstrated in our first meet at Jefferson." Molfetto said, "The greatest improvement has been in the friendships that have formed. If it hadn't been for Unified Track and Field, they may not have met."

Nicole Tahmoosh, a sophomore at MOHS, is a member of Best Buddies, who also participated in the meets. She said, "Best Buddies has gifted me with irreplaceable friendships and has revealed to me some of the most kind-hearted, and ardent human beings I've ever had the honor of knowing. This club has taught me the importance of acceptance and that we are all more alike than we may originally think, while also positively impacting my life in a way I will forever be grateful for."

Tahmoosh enjoyed practicing and working with each of her peers. She described the experience: "As a part of the team we practice with the athletes and also run in the meets alongside them and compete in other events. However, the most important thing that we all do is just help motivate and support the athletes while doing our best to provide them with the normal, high school sports experience, they undoubtedly deserve."

On Wednesday, June 6, these unified athletes and partners participated in their first competitive meet at their home field. Athletes and Partners from Mt Olive, Jefferson, Hopatcong, and Newton competed in the shot put, long jump, and javelin field events. They ran the 4x100-meter and 4x200-meter relays in teams of two athletes and two partners per relay. In addition, the 100m and 200m dash were run with a combined score of the athlete and partners time. Gilbert and Molfetto said, "The events were all about teamwork."

Becca Gilbert, a junior at MOHS and Vice President of Best Buddies, said, "One of the highlights of the June 6th meet was seeing all of the students have so much fun when they ran and received their medals. It was so nice to see so many people from the school community come out to support our students. It was one of the best events I have participated in at MOHS."

Some of the Marauder special-education athletes, such as sophomores Kaitlyn Bailey and Gabriella Parisi were so delighted to be competing and part of a team alongside their general-education partners. Bailey teamed up with freshman Stephanie Tashmoosh in long jump and 100m dash, while Parisi was paired with junior Matthew Montello in the shot put and 200m dash. "It was spectacular," Bailey said. "Everyone was cheering for me." "I loved being with my friends," Gabriella said. "I love hanging with Matthew. Matthew is silly."

As for the general-education partners, they gain a lot from the experience too. Matthew Montello said, "It was cool and I like how everyone was mixed in together. I think it is a good chance to let everyone show his or her talents. I will definitely do this again next year!"

The meet ended with an award ceremony where the participants earned medals as recognition for all of their hard work. The most important aspect of the day was when all of the athletes and partners started planning for next year. Gilbert stated, "It was such a surreal day. The student body that turned out, staff and students who gave their time to volunteer and the never ending smiles of the athletes and partners from all schools made for a day I will never forget."

Thinking about next year, Mrs. Molfetto stated, "We will continue to develop our Unified Track team. Next year we will host this invitational again. The goal is to have athletes move on and compete at the NJSIAA's Meet of Champions. I would like to see Mount Olive become a Unified Champion School." The Unified Champion Schools approach "incorporates Special Olympics sports, leadership and related activities that empower youth to be change agents in their communities. This is a paradigm shift from a focus on events to that of a whole school movement for inclusion."

In the future Mrs. Gilbert and Mrs. Molfetto envision three seasons of unified sports, making it a year round sports program.

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Mount Olive High School
18 Corey Road Flanders, NJ 07836
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