MILLBURN, NJ - The Millburn women's and men's basketball teams weren't the only Millburn team that laced up this weekend. The MHS Play Unified Team, a squad, composed of general and special needs students, hosted Unified Teams from Union City, Basking Ridge and Chatham to open their season.
The Miller Play Unified Team aims to encourage inclusion while having fun, and building relationships through sports. It has given many special needs students the chance to represent their high school and play on a team, which is often unavailable to special needs students. The group has been practicing every other Sunday since November and opened its season on their home court on Sunday.
Each Play Unified Team in every participating school is part of the Special Olympics of New Jersey's Unified Schools and Sports program. Susan Colacello, Director of School and Community Partnerships for the Special Olympics of New Jersey, believes the experience Play Unified Teams provide each student with on and off the court is invaluable.
"Everyone benefits. The special needs kids get the opportunity to get more confidence" said Colacello. "And, these Unified clubs set examples in their school for a club that's inclusive of everyone. That means that everyone has leadership potential and everyone can be an athlete in their school."
The Play Unified program stretches beyond basketball. After a few years, the Special Olympics of New Jersey has elevated the program to bowling, track soccer, and basketball, and has spread it to many high schools in New Jersey.
Roger Askins, Millburn High School Transition Coordinator, along with MHS Play Unified Coaches Eric Cantagallo, and Howard Shirley, organized this group of students this year. Aside from sports, Askins has made great advancements with his students everyday. Although they are progressing as individuals, the students are also improving as a unit.
"They really get to know and get involved in everyone's lives," said Askins. "It makes them feel like they're a part of something. It makes them feel included in the Millburn High School community, and that's important because that's what everybody wants."
Even though the students and the program itself have already accomplished so much, this is just the beginning for MHS Play Unified. Tournaments like these are meant to prepare the Millers for the Shriver Cup in early April. The close to 20 Play Unified Teams in New Jersey will compete for the Shriver Cup in Lawrenceville, the Special Olympics of New Jersey's facility. Students will go head to head, representing their respective schools in each and every Play Unified Sport.