The COVID-induced closure of the Westport Weston Family YMCA is tough on many members who miss their regular gym and swim workouts, spin and yoga classes, and much more.
It’s especially hard on the few dozen young people engaged in the Y’s Unified Program, which pairs special needs athletes with partners. Led by Danette Meigel and staff, they join in weekly basketball, swimming and track practices, and compete in tournaments and meets throughout the year.
The Unified Program brings competition, structure, friendship and joy to all involved. For many special needs youngsters — and their dedicated volunteers — it’s a highlight of their lives.
In late March, as schools, sports and almost everything else — including the Y –shut down, head youth volunteer Oliver Clachko contacted Danette. He wanted to bring the Unified athletes together through Zoom meetings.
Danette loved the idea. Quickly, her staff devised a plan.
Every Saturday since early April, Danette, coaches Marta Taddeo, Christophe Esposito and Shannon Connors, and teen volunteers including Oliver, Max Udell, Ryan Weil, Layne Yacenda, Julian Frucht and Hugh Hutchinson, have led virtual Unified basketball practices for their special needs friends.
Oliver Clachko leading a virtual basketball practice, from home.
They begin by socializing — much needed by all, in these times of isolation. Next come warm-ups and simple basketball drills. None require a hoop; most don’t even use a basketball.
They finish by asking the young athletes what drill or exercise they want to do next week.
From only one attendee the first week, the number has grown steadily. It’s a steady presence — but that’s not all. This Sunday (May 17), the Y Unified Program begins a dry land swim session.
Also in the works: a Unified Sports game night (with pizza!), and “virtual Special Olympics” (a 5K run/walk in your neighborhood or on a treadmill) in June.
The Westport Y Unified Program is very special, for sure.
For more information or to volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.
The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.
It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.
Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.
Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.
Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.
The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.
Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.
STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.
St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.
St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.
Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.
Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.
But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.
Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.
A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.
The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.
Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.
Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.
This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.
The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.
Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.
Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.
Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.
Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”
It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.
And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.
(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.)
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