Rider recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School

By Christina Natoli

Rider was one of three New Jersey colleges to be named a Special Olympics Unified Champion School this fall due to its dedicated Unified Sports Club.

The hard work of Unified Sports Club turned this honor into a reality.

The Unified Sports Club connects students with Special Olympics athletes through the participation of activities. In this club sport, students can either play or assist in the tournaments held every semester, practicing good sportsmanship and optimism every step of the way.

According to Special Olympics New Jersey, “A National Banner Unified Champion School is one that has demonstrated commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 standards of excellence,” including athleticism, student leadership and school engagement.

Senior computer science major and current Student Government Association President Elizabeth O’Hara, who served as Unified’s president from 2019 to 2021, described Rider’s path to success.

“Two things we worked to implement as an executive board were inclusive youth leadership and whole-school engagement. To do this, we implemented an athlete coordinator position on the executive board that is to be held by a Special Olympics New Jersey Athlete. They attend executive board meetings, help in the member recruitment process, plan practices and events and even create one activity for the club on their own,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara continued, “Additionally, we introduced an event last year called ‘The Inclusion Monologues’ where a variety of athletes, partners, professors and community members came together to learn about the impact of inclusion and how we can be more inclusive in our everyday lives. We invited Loretta Claiborne, Special Olympics vice-chair of the board of directors and chief inspiration officer, who spoke about meaningful involvement and how we need to proceed with our push for inclusiveness in our communities. Both of these initiatives, along with things we had already been doing as a club, pushed us to fulfill all 10 standards and be able to apply for the recognition.”

Dianna Clauss, director of recreation programs and advisor of Unified Sports, congratulated the club on its success.

“I’ve had the pleasure of advising the Unified Sports Club since its inception, and I couldn’t be prouder of how far the club has come. This recognition is a result of the dedication many student leaders have demonstrated over the years, and I’d like to thank Liz O’Hara for submitting the application to the Special Olympics on our behalf,” said Clauss.

This year’s Unified president is sophomore elementary education major Evie Giglio, who has a vast enthusiasm for the future of the club with its recent certification.

“The most rewarding part of this process has been seeing how excited everyone gets upon hearing of this recognition. This recognition would put Rider Unified on the map, and I thought that was such an exciting idea because everyone [who is] a part of Unified Sports is so dedicated to the program and its success,” said Giglio. “In addition to this, working with our Special Olympics athletes and Rider students makes all of the behind-the-scenes hard work truly worthwhile. I am so thankful to have joined this club last year because it has taught me so much about the importance of connection.”

Unified Sports received the recognition after a difficult year where COVID-19 mandates complicated the interaction of students.

Sophomore elementary education and the club’s captain Amy Borsuk said, “As a club, we would meet on Zoom once a week and worked together as a team to reach our ending goal. We participated in different virtual activities to reach this goal.”

The Special Olympics Unified Champion School program represents over 3 million students from ages 2 to 21, and 8,000 schools in the United States with a goal of 10,000 schools by 2024. Next semester, the club plans to unveil a banner commemorating this momentous prestige and is excited for other schools to follow in their footsteps.

O’Hara said, “Sports are a very powerful agent for social change. College Unified programs like the one at Rider give opportunities to showcase all abilities and embrace our differences while still finding ways to come together as one. … We are so lucky to have so many dedicated partners, athletes and leaders that are passionate about creating a more inclusive world. Unified Sports is for everyone, and any student that is interested should give it a chance — it just might change their life.”

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