Rowan Unified Soccer team member lights Special Olympics torch

Rowan Unified Soccer team member lights Special Olympics torch

MONROE – For Julie Kelly, the Special Olympics torch is a touchstone for the passion that has enveloped her life. Chosen to light the "Flame of Hope" at Sunday's 2014 USA Games Opening Ceremony at the Prudential Center in Newark, Kelly found the experience indescribable.

"The whole day event was incredible," said Kelly, who spent the past two years helping to build a Special Olympics Unified Sports program at Rowan University in Glassboro. "There was a lot of anticipation, and when we walked in there together as a team, that was one thing. Then I walked to light the torch. I felt overwhelmed with feelings and so honored to be there."

Finding perspective in life

Being involved with unified sports and Special Olympics is where the 21-year-old township native found a passion she never expected. As a member of Rowan Unified Sports, Kelly has dedicated herself to increasing awareness for and about Special Olympic athletes.

"Being involved with Rowan Unified Sports, I have learned so much," said Kelly, a Rowan University health promotion and fitness management senior. "It has changed my life in general. I am a lot more accepting. It has changed my perspective and it changes others — just seeing us play together on the same field. I am so grateful to be a part of this."

The first program of its kind in the state and the first official college club program in the nation, Rowan Unified Sports promotes inclusion through sports by bringing people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same playing field as teammates. Kelly became involved as a freshman at Rowan when she and her roommate answered a call for volunteers.

"We heard about this new club and decided to check it out," said Kelly, who graduated from Monroe Township High School in 2011. "There had been unified sports clubs at middle school and high school levels, but never college. I played basketball that first season and it was very successful. It has now become one of the most popular clubs on campus."

Since its creation, 212 Rowan students and 70 Special Olympics New Jersey athletes have participated in five seasons — three basketball and two soccer — of Rowan Unified Sports. Kelly will serve as the 2014-2015 president of the Rowan Intramural Recreational Sports Association (RIRSA) club. Previously, she completed a term as vice president in her junior year and as secretary in her sophomore year.

Team New Jersey

Kelly also is one of four Rowan students/alumni selected to compete in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games Unified Soccer league representing Team New Jersey. She plays alongside six Special Olympics New Jersey athletes, all repeat participants of Rowan Unified Sports.

Kelly, who also works in the Rowan Rec Center in the main office and as a spinning instructor, said her prior sports involvement was seven years of field hockey.

"I am not the best soccer player out there," she said. "I never played soccer before this. I think I'm on the team for my leadership skills and not for my soccer skills. I have definitely improved, but I am not a competitive soccer player, for sure."

Along with Kelly, Team New Jersey includes Rowan Unified partners Michelle Lima, a senior athletic training major from Clifton, and Jon Pepper, a senior public relations major from Bridgeton, as well as Rowan alumnus Solomon Feraidoon, a 2013 accounting graduate from Ringwood.

The Special Olympics New Jersey athletes on the team are Cody Bruner, 25, of Barrington; Khary Bullock Jr., 23, of Franklinville; Brooke Creighton, 19, of Pitman; Billy Iocona, 17, of Deptford; Charles Schafer, 25, of Haddonfield; and Lauren Sweeney, 21, of West Deptford, daughter of state Sen. Steve Sweeney.

"Our Special Olympics athletes are always ready to play," Kelly said. "They are very competitive. They are so much fun to be with."

Coaches for the 2014 Special Olympics USA games are Gary Baker, the assistant director of orientation and student leadership programs, and Jack Boncales, a 2013 health and physical education graduate. Baker is the founder of Rowan Unified Sports.

"There are more college programs out there now," Kelly said. "There are five other unified college programs that have gotten started up at New Jersey colleges within the past year."

Winning isn't everything

The group has played together for the past year in Rowan Unified Soccer and Unified Basketball and began team training in February. On Monday, the Rowan Unified Soccer team began their quest for gold in competition against unified teams from around the country at Mercer County Park in Hamilton.

"We won both our games on the first day," said Kelly, who is interning with Special Olympics New Jersey this summer. "We played against Team Maryland and won 3-0 and then played Team Massachusetts and won 4-0. Unfortunately, our games on Tuesday with Utah and Nebraska did not have the same outcome. We lost both. We had an awesome day though — two amazing games and we really showed what unified is all about."

Kelly is quick to point out that while it is nice to win, that's not the focus for Team New Jersey.

"There's a change in perspective," she said. "It's not about the winning or the losing. It's about who is playing and how we play together as a team. We always have fun. We have formed relationships both on the field and off. After each game, we reflect on everything and soak it all in. We always look at why we are here and what we are learning."

Kelly said the Special Olympic athletes and college students have gained from the experience.

"We could have been friends before if we had the opportunity to meet," she said. "Through Rowan Unified Sports, we did. We have a bond on and off the field. We are friends. We are family."

Having played four games in pool play, Team New Jersey will participate in bracket play for a medal. They started that round with a 1-0 victory over Team Wyoming on Wednesday morning. On Thursday, they will face Team Arkansas and also Team Utah, then on Friday morning, they will play Team Illinois. The Closing Ceremony is scheduled for Friday at the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton.

For more information, visit the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/RowanUnified or https://www.2014specialolympics.org/.

Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256; cmakin@mycentraljersey.com

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Date Published: Thursday, June 19, 2014 - 12:45
Source URL: Home News Tribune