By Shanna O’Mara
For the second year in a row, Rider University hosted Special Olympics New Jersey’s Unified Game Day on Oct. 24, where students from three junior high schools around the state, with and without intellectual disabilities, gathered to participate in sporting events.
A.J. Doherty, a seventh grader from West Windsor-Plainsboro, helped explain directions and guide classmates with disabilities through soccer drills. “Playing games was an easy way to interact and bring everyone together,” Doherty said.
A total of 52 students took part in the event by participating in various activities on the Richard E. Daly Intramural fields including soccer, golf and flag football. Volunteers leading each station were, respectively, Rider men’s and women’s varsity soccer players, members of the New Jersey Professional Golf Association, and the Rider intramural staff. Other volunteers from each of the middle schools attended to assist those in need. Both staff members and students played alongside participants with intellectual disabilities.
Kristen Baxter, a member of the Emerging Leader class and volunteer at the sports expo, said the kids were enthusiastic from the minute they walked through the door. Whether they were competing in scrimmages or socializing in groups, “they always wanted to engage with others.”
The event was promoted by Rider’s Emerging Leaders and organized by Dianna Clauss, assistant director of campus life for recreation programs, in coordination with Kalee Baker, education and outreach manager of Special Olympics New Jersey. Students and staff in attendance at the sports expo included those from the Mercer County Special Services School District, Mount Laurel Hartford School and West Windsor-Plainsboro Community Middle School.
This year’s Unified Game Day was one of seven held this year throughout the state. Special Olympics New Jersey provides year-round sports training and athletic competitions, all free of charge, for over 24,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities.
When students of all abilities put aside their differences to work toward a common goal, it “naturally helps break down the social barriers that commonly exist between them,” said Baker. “Our goal through the Unified Sports movement is to create schools, communities and societies where everyone feels welcome, accepted and valued.”
Playing sports allows the students to showcase their talents, thus building confidence and displaying determination. According to Doherty, the assisted students “felt better about themselves” after learning new skills and making new friends.
Kyra Ellwood, a West Windsor-Plainsboro Community Middle School eighth grader, said the experience of volunteering alongside the Special Olympics as “fulfilling” and said she will participate in similar events in the future. “I have set a goal for myself to do something good every day, and today, I feel I have reached that.”