It’s Friday, and that means one thing: There’s tons (inches if you take a look outside) of good news and good vibes floating around town. The most immediate of which is a day free from the classroom for the kids.
No, having a snow day isn’t all good news from a parent’s perspective, but there’s a silver lining to be exposed here as well: at least its happening on a Friday. And if you work in a school, even better — now you’ve got a three-day weekend.
Our biggest good news of the day, however, does return to the Windsor Public School system where one couple has worked for decades to provide opportunities for social and personal growth to Windsor students.
When Windsor special education teacher Andrew Giza was asked to start a sports team for special education students in 1995, his immediate thought was that he’d struggle to find the time to get it done. He was a coach of multiple teams with traditional students at the time, but he thought he’d give it a shot.
“It was so much fun. Since then, I’ve never given it up,” said Giza from a recent unified basketball tournament held at Windsor High.
Unlike other sports associated with the special olympics, unified sports are a collaborative effort between special education students and their “partners,” traditional education students.
Eighteen years ago, Giza’s answer to former Windsor High Principal Lawrence Shea’s request stands as a beaming example of the social power of athletics, and serves as a bastion of development and personal growth for special education and traditional education students alike.
There are other unified sports programs, tournaments, but Giza’s program is the only one with a full-fledged unified basketball league in the state of Connecticut.
The program has humble beginnings. At the outset, there was no funding, according to Giza, so he and his players made grinders and sold them to WHS teachers to make money for the program. They bought t-shirts and put numbers on them. Giza bought the programs basketballs.
Unified sports have come along way since then. They have real uniforms, have funding for transportation provided by the board of education and the league is recognized as part of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletics Conference (CIAC).
For the students, it’s all about the experience of being a part of a team, something Giza knows well.
As a kid, Giza vividly remembers trying out for the baseball team, and being unable to catch very well.
“I got hit in the head a couple times and the coach said, ‘Sorry, you can’t be on the team.’ I went home crying. I never forgot that,” recalled Giza.
“Think about these kids. (Without unified) they would never have had the opportunity to be on a team or feel like they’re part of a team.”
Now, he cherishes the moments when he sees his athletes wear their jerseys to class and the positive impact the program has on the traditional education students.
“It not only helps the special ed. kids, it helps the regular ed. kids, too,” he said.
“The regular ed. kids, in the beginning, are apprehensive, but when they get to know (the special education students), they have a really good time,” said Giza’s wife, Sue, who has been his right hand throughout the league’s development.
“The partners get even more out of it than the special education students do,” said Sue.
The partners, according to Sue Giza, are all volunteers. “They just seem to trickle in when they see us playing,” she said.
One of the most evident impacts is made when partners’ lives make a turn for the better.
Some of the partners who have volunteered over the years have been students who have gotten into their fair share of trouble at the high school, but, explained Andrew Giza, they are the nicest kids to the special education athletes, and they end up doing better in school.