‘Immeasurable impact’: Unified Sports program expands into Shelton Intermediate

SHELTON — Samantha Medrek has seen firsthand how athletic success can inspire students with disabilities, and now she is more than watching, she is coaching.

Medrek — with the help of fellow teacher Ron Gydus — has helped bring the Unified Sports program to the Shelton Intermediate School, and she says the success can be seen every day on the faces of the participants.

Unified Sports is a strategy for schools that promotes social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities.

“The impact on my students and their families is immeasurable,” Medrek said. “The partners have grown so much as leaders, too, and I truly believe they continue to grow as kind-hearted individuals.

“Our vision at SIS is to be inclusive, develop a team that deepen friendships, and just have fun,” Medrek added.

Medrek and Gydus coach the Unified Sports basketball team, with practices once a week. The Unified Sports program at SIS will run for three seasons — soccer and kick ball in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring. At present, there are 10 athletes and 15 partners participating in the program.

“So much development happens in middle school,” Medrek said. “They are formative years for all kids. For my students, Unified Sports provides opportunities to practice social and gross motor skills, increase their confidence, and deepen their friendships with peers.

“For the partners — those participating in assisting our athletes — there are so many benefits,” she added. “These students are learning how to embrace differences, learn empathy, and spread kindness in our school community.”

The intermediate school’s Unified Sports program begins as the high school continues to set the standard in the state with its program.

The high school’s national recognition as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School is now on display for all to see.

Shelton High, with Unified Sports coaches Karen Devonshuk and Mike Gambardella, earned that honor in 2020, a year after the school earned the Michael’s Cup for being one of the top Unified Sports programs in the state.

Medrek said she started working at SIS in 2020, and at the time many of her students were going to adaptive physical education (a modified program for students with disabilities) with Brad Piccirillo.

“We both loved seeing our students light up when they made a basket or won a race,” Medrek said. “We both agreed to start a program when COVID restrictions lightened up. Brad was ultimately promoted to a position at the high school but still came down to SIS to help me get it off the ground.”

Medrek said since Piccirillo was not at SIS to assist, she had to seek assistance.

“Ron Gydus, our Media Specialist at SIS, rose to the occasion,” Medrek said. “He has been so committed to creating this program with me. He has been an incredible partner to do this with.”

Gydus said he was thrilled to participate when Medrak approached him.

“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Gydus said. “From that point forward, we have worked together to get the program up and running. I could not ask for a better partner than Sam. She is so dedicated to her students. She brings such a positive energy to everything she does.”

In the summer, Gydus works in the Extended School Year-Life Skills Program as an instructional tutor, and many of the students participating in Unified Sports now also take part in the Extended School Year Program.

“I enjoy spending my summers with the group. It is something I look forward to each summer,” Gydus said.

Medrek said there are countless moments that make the decision to start the unified sports program at SIS so satisfying.

“We have a student who struggles with walking and standing for more than 30 seconds,” Medrek said. “Ron set up a passing drill where the kids stand in a circle and one teammate is in the center passing to everyone. This student jumped out of his chair unprompted to be the star of the show. For a kid with complex physical challenges to do that — it was just so special.”

Medrek said at a recent practice, one of the athletes scored and the whole team cheered for him.

“He was so filled with emotion his lip started quivering,” Medrek said. “He was so overwhelmed with joy.”

Another student wrote about it in her writing journal, Medrek said, saying “I used to be so scared of playing basketball. Now I feel happy and good.”

Gydus said Shelton Intermediate School is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences.

“Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team,” he said. “It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.

“In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability,” he added. “That makes practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all. Having sport in common is just one more way those preconceptions and false ideas are swept away.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com