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As a freshman, Newtown High School student Kai-li Davey was prompted by her mother, Kathy Davey, to help out as a partner in the school’s Unified Sports program that Ms Davey helped establish and has directed for five years.
A bit unsure at first, Kai-li grew to enjoy her role as a partner, assisting special needs athletes on the playing fields and courts.
“I was resistant at first. She helped open my heart, open my eyes to see how it changes them (special needs athletes) and also how it changes you,” Kai-li said. “I learned how to have an open heart and an open mind.”
A couple of years later, and the junior is following in her mother’s footsteps by taking on her own leadership roles with students. Kai-li opened her heart to a younger generation of students this past Saturday morning.
For her junior/senior project, Kai-li organized Newtown’s first Little Feet Meet for kindergarten through fifth grade athletes and partners. The track meet, which included a variety of running and throwing events as well as a soccer station, was to be held at the Blue & Gold Stadium track, but switched to the gymnasium because of rain. But another generation of athletes had their moment in the sun, anyway, thanks to the efforts of Kai-li and many of her peers as well as NHS administrators who volunteered their time for the event.
“I just brought everybody together. They’re doing all the work,” Kai-li said of the collaborative effort.
Dozens of elementary school-age children had fun engaging in the activities, including a dance break, all the while getting a sampling of what Unified Sports is about. The event was open to all students and, in role-reversal fashion, some of the high school special needs athletes served as partners helping out the participants.
“It’s so special for the high school, and now we’re transitioning from the high school to the middle school, to the elementary schools — the whole town,” said Newtown High Athletic Director Matt Memoli who, along with Kai-li, put medals over the heads of each of the participants at the end of the meet.
Most of the attendees/participants were from Newtown, but some from out of town heard about the event and decided to see what it was all about. Among them was Watertown’s Alexis Butler, parent of special needs elementary student, Lexi.
“This was a very nice introduction for us,” Ms Butler said of Unified Sports.
“It’s important not only for the special needs kids, but for the mentors, giving them a whole other perspective on sports,” said Newtown High physical education teacher and soccer/track/field coach Laura McLean, who served as Kai-li’s mentor. “She wanted to reach out to the rest of the community and give them the opportunity.”
Newtown Middle School brought on Unified Sports last school year. The Daveys — Kathy’s husband, Russ, helps out at Unified Sporting events as well — think it is important to extend the program to the youngest learners in town.
“It serves such a great purpose, so we thought we will start it at the elementary grade level,” Mr Davey said. “It’s great. You can’t help but get involved and have positive feelings.”
“Everybody realizes how much more alike they are than different. It brings out the best in everybody,” added Ms Davey, who noted that former participants come back for events, including the Little Feet Meet.
Newtown High’s program has grown in leaps and bounds in a short time, and has more than two-dozen athletes and partners in each of the seasons, fall, winter, and spring, when soccer, basketball, and track are offered. The team, called the Gold Rush, practices twice a week and competes against other schools as well as in tournaments each season.
Ms Davey won the David Johnson Unified Sports Leadership Award and was recognized at the South-West Conference Leadership Banquet at The Amber Room in Danbury on May 3.
“It really is not me — it’s our program,” Ms Davey said of being recognized.
“The high school has a blossoming Unified program that’s grown more and more each year. We really need a strong base. The kids need to understand compassion and how to help each other out,” Kai-li said of the objective of starting Unified Sports at the elementary school level. “This is something our community really needs — especially now.”