PATCHOGUE-MEDFORD, Long Island (WABC) -- High risk sports are back in action in New York state, and that also means the return of Special Olympics Unified Sports.
"A Unified team is, half the students on the team have a disability, and half the students do not," Special Olympics New York President and SEO Stacey Hengsterman said. "And they play together."
And more important than the athletics, Unified sports are about leadership, promotion of social inclusion, and relationships for all athletes.
"It's just amazing, because I normally wouldn't be able to interact with certain people on the team," Unified partner Stephanie Lally said. "And now when I see them in the hallways, we smile and we say hi."
For many, it's more than just friendship.
"We see each other all around school sometimes," Unified athlete William Stern said. "We say hi, we say hi back, we say how are you doing. It's almost like a family."
And the benefits extend beyond that as well.
"I received phone calls from special education teachers that said they saw a difference in their class the next day after the first practice," Patchogue Medford Athletic Director Ryan Cox said. "Because they automatically have 18, 20 new friends to see in the hallway, to see at lunch."
Patchogue Medford is one of 15 Unified Champion schools on Long Island, and they -- along with Special Olympics New York -- are hoping other schools will follow their lead.
"We do support schools who want to start up to be a Unified Champions school," Hengsterman said. "We have a stipends available. We know it's not easy to start a new sports team sometimes, with budget cuts, and you want to be thee to support them."
And those involved rave about the results.
"I would like to see it widespread throughout," Unified coach Leighann Gallagher said. "Because it's such an incredible program."
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