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Caring counts

Participants in the Unified Sports Program shown here helping to raise money for their program at a raffle. Reminder Publications submitted photo
By Katelyn Gendron-List, Reminder Assistant Editor

Unified Sports Program brings together children of all abilities

WESTFIELD While many classrooms and athletic programs are separating able-bodied children and children with disabilities one sports program is uniting the children and redefining the dynamic of youth athletics and socialization.

The YMCA of Greater Westfield's Unified Sports Program brings able-bodied children and children with disabilities, ages six through 12, together for a four-week session of sports regardless of their level of athleticism.

"We accept everyone of all skill levels and want them to learn and enjoy sports together," George Hart, director of Youth Sports at the YMCA of Greater Westfield said. "We want both the children with disabilities and the able-bodied children to enjoy life."

Hart added that this program allows children and parents to live the core values of the YMCA, which are based upon the "caring counts" philosophy. The children learn about caring, honesty, respect and responsibility through their interactions within the Unified Sports Program.

According to Steven Berube, creator of the Unified Sports Program, the program began when his now 9-year-old son was in the first grade and befriended Garrett Dejordy, a child with Down syndrome. Berube was his son's baseball coach and invited Dejordy to play with his team.

"[Like all children] he could not swing a bat or throw a ball at first," Berube said. "But he fell madly in love [with baseball] and by the end of last year he could swing a bat and throw a ball."

However, after three years of coaching Dejordy, it was decided that he would retire from baseball, as Dejordy would be unable to move up to Little League because he could not face live pitching, Berube added.

But their friendship and respect for Dejordy was so monumental that the team of eight and nine-year-old boys began a fundraiser to throw him a retirement party and take him to a Pawtucket Red Sox game, Berube said. With the extra $4,000 that was raised Berube was able to start the Unified Sports Program.

In an interview with Reminder Publications, Tanya Wheeler, Dejordy's mother stated that while her son does participate in the Unified Sports Program he has the physical strength and ability to play typical sports, as he will continue to play community basketball for the Boys and Girls Club.

"Garrett is a valued friend and the kids are really excited to have him and they encourage him to try harder," Wheeler said. "He really does well and it has changed his life and has changed the lives of the children that he's with."

According to Eric Schwartz, a volunteer for the Unified Sports Program and father of Ari Schwartz who participates in the program and played on Berube's baseball team with Dejordy, there is much to be gained from the Unified Sports Program, not only for children with disabilities but also for the able-bodied children.

"Ari finds it cool that kids with disabilities can get out there and play sports," Schwartz said. "The fact that they get out there is important to him and he has made relationships with people that he wouldn't have previously."

Not only are able-bodied children like Ari Schwartz finding the Unified Sports Program a valuable and fun experience but according to Cheryl Massey, mother of Griffen Massey, a formally disabled child with Goldenhar syndrome, stated that her son is also willing go give back to other children with disabilities through the Unified Sports Program.

"Griffen is very aware of his struggles and it's very important to him to give back to other kids," said Massey. "He has built lasting friendships and will often recruit friends to come and play with him and to help him with the disabled kids."

Currently the Unified Sports Program has just finished their four-week session of baseball and they are now moving on to Frisbee golf, Berube said. Frisbee golf will be taking place every Thursday night at Stanley Park from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Children must be accompanied by a parent or a high-school-aged sibling.

In order to participate in any of the Unified Sports Program events children must have a Limited Program Membership for Youth at the YMCA, Hart stated. The cost is $15 per year. However there is no program fee for the Unified Sports Program.

The Unified Sports Program is hoping to offer sled hockey and gymnastics next, Hart added.

"With every single program the only skill that we choose to teach is socialization," Berube said. "We try to teach healthy kids that they shouldn't look at other kids as different. When they play sports with disabled kids they look at them as any other kids and not as different."

For more information about the Unified Sports Program call the YMCA of Greater Westfield at 568-8631.