Putting differences aside was the theme of the night in the Southampton High School gymnasium on November 14.
Southampton hosted its first Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game, a combined effort of the Mariner and Baymen varsity and junior varsity boys and girls basketball teams and Special Olympics programs at both schools. On separate boys and girls teams, two Special Olympics athletes were partnered with three unified partners for games that followed the regular rules of basketball.
Of course, no one was keeping score, and winning or losing was far from anyone’s mind. Camaraderie, good sportsmanship and good old-fashioned kindness took center stage in an event that was mutually beneficial for all the players involved, not to mention the two communities at large.
Southampton teacher Brian Tenety, who teaches adapted physical education for special needs students and coordinates Special Olympics events at the school, spearheaded the creation of the basketball event. He put together a unified track and field event last year, but said the turnout wasn’t where he’d hoped it would be. So, he turned his attention to basketball.
“We were looking for a more controlled setting,” he added.
Coaches and administrators from both schools have also been looking for ways to address recent rivalries between the respective varsity programs that have created some tension in the communities. Last Thursday night’s event filled the need in that respect as well, Tenety said. “With both schools looking to find a common ground, it was a perfect opportunity to put something positive in motion,” he explained.
This time, both turnout and feedback were overwhelmingly positive, with parents, students and teachers from both schools packing the stands and cheering loudly for both teams. Hampton Bays resident Catherine Barberine, whose 15-year-old son, James Perry, played for the Baymen, said she was impressed.
“I was just blown away by how the older kids interacted with the kids from the Life Skills Academy,” she said, referring to the program for special needs students, which her son is a part of, at Hampton Bays. “It was a good thing to see, because they have this notorious rivalry, so to see that they came together and were really there for the kids, it really meant a lot.”
Both Southampton and Hampton Bays have a life skills program at their respective schools, which allows students with special needs to get the attention and education they require without having to attend a different school and be totally separated from their other peers and siblings. Ms. Barberine said the program is great.
“James has been in it for four years now, and this is his first year in the high school,” she said. “Before that, he was a BOCES student. I can’t say enough wonderful things about it. It’s really blown me away.”
Students enrolled in the programs have some classes with the rest of the students, but also participate in community work study programs.
“The goal of the life skills staff is to incorporate students throughout the school day,” Tenety explained. “Where I grew up, life skills students were isolated. In Southampton, it’s so open-minded. Our goal is to not let you see a difference in anybody.”
Kyle Valentine, who coordinates the life skills program at Hampton Bays, said he couldn’t have imagined a better event. “I thought the game was amazing,” he said. “One parent described it as priceless for everyone involved.”
Tenety and Valentine hope to plan more unified events, particularly ones that include both schools working together. They both agree that it has wide-reaching benefits for everyone involved.
“If you look at society today, the thing that everyone has to learn is acceptance,” Tenety said. “People need to stop being judgmental about something that is out of someone’s control. Everyone really accepted one another, and that includes the students from Hampton Bays and Southampton.
“It provided an atmosphere where there was no pressure and it was light-hearted and non-competitive,” he continued. “You got to see basketball players making sure they were handing the ball off to particular kids to get a shot. It gave everyone a fresh outlook.”
Tenety said he is hoping to coordinate another Special Olympics event in the spring. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact him at email@example.com.