ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – People are more alike than they are different.

And that is the point Neil Johnson, president and CEO of Special Olympics New York, made at the conclusion of last week’s Project Unify basketball competition which took place on campus April 27.

The day began early in the City of Olean, with a local leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run that opens Special Olympics events across the country. For the third straight year, the Olean leg commemorated the loss of State Trooper Ross M. Riley, who died in 2013 during a New York State Police rescue training exercise at Letchworth State Park. Riley had served 17 years with the state police and was a Marine Corps veteran of the Persian Gulf War.

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After a group photo was taken and before the runners took off from the intersection of routes 16 and 417, between City Hall and Lincoln Park, Erica Raepple, director of development at Special Olympics New York, told them, “This run has quadrupled in size since we began doing it here. It’s a direct result of everyone here’s dedication and I can’t thank you all enough for coming out and supporting this life-changing cause.”

Runners included members of the state police and the Olean and Allegany municipal police departments, select athletes from the competing schools, members of the SBU cross-country team and volunteers. Around 9 a.m., police closed off West State Street and escorted the runners who took turns carrying the Flame of Hope from Olean City Hall to the opening ceremony on the Bob Lanier Court in SBU’s Reilly Center.  

Waiting for the runners was a group of 200 athletes as well as cheerleading squads and mascots from Olean, Allegany-Limestone, Portville and Franklinville school districts, along with dozens of volunteers from the university. After the opening ceremony, blended teams of students with and without intellectual disabilities from grades four through 10 played basketball throughout the day in the Reilly Center, the Richter Center and Butler Gym.

During closing ceremonies in the Reilly Center, Johnson told those gathered that “unified events like this help us realize that we’re more alike than we are different.”

As the Reilly Center emptied, Johnson addressed the University Forum class of Dr. Paula Scraba, associate professor of physical education, which had played a large part in organizing and facilitating the event.

Only decades ago, students with intellectual disabilities used to be isolated and in educational institutions they still face an 80 percent higher chance of being bullied than other students do, Johnson said. Project Unify brings students with and without intellectual disabilities together to compete athletically while building special relationships.

“You may not have seen it because you were all so busy, but you just made a lot of kids incredibly happy. They don’t get that often enough,” he concluded.