As she’ll tell you herself, Celine Heffron-Pero — a Special Olympics Pennsylvania athlete from Chester County — is the type of person who is determined to accomplish her goals.
And, in the case of becoming a Special Olympics athlete, whereas many athletes learn about the program from school or a family friend, Celine browsed the internet, found her local program and began competing.
From there, her Special Olympics journey over the course of the last four years has included everything from competing at state-wide competitions such as Summer Games and Fall Festival to a trip to Seattle to take part in the 2018 USA Games with her Unified soccer team.
Along the way, Celine has made a number of close friends but perhaps none closer than Julia Ewing. Julia, a junior at Ursinus College, met Celine through the Best Buddies program during her freshman year at Ursinus.
“Best Buddies was something I wasn’t familiar with, but I think it’s really good for people to build relationships with somebody they wouldn’t necessarily meet in a regular setting,” Ewing said.
After quickly discovering that both shared a common love of soccer — Julia is a standout on Ursinus’ team where this past season she scored two goals, assisted one more and led the team in shots on goal — they bonded. And what started as somewhat of a pre-scheduled obligation blossomed into a true friendship.
Celine, 26, attends all of Ursinus’ games — home and away (whenever possible) — and Julia said she’s definitely the team’s “number one fan.” As a result, Celine can frequently be found hanging out with the team, even when soccer isn’t involved. For Celine’s most recent birthday, Julia & the Bears threw her a birthday party in their suite on campus. As a gift, the team presented Celine with a signed jersey bearing Julia’s No. 7.
“They wanted to give it to me because they know that I support their team and I go to all of their games. I like supporting their team,” Heffron-Pero said.
But it’s not just Celine who attends Julia’s games. Whenever their schedule allows, the Ursinus women’s soccer team comes out to Special Olympics events to cheer on Celine. Most recently, they attended Fall Fest at Villanova University to return the favor to their top supporter.
“We get the team together and go to her Special Olympics events as much as we possibly can,” Ewing, 20, said. “Anything where we can incorporate Celine into the dynamic, we really appreciate it because not everyone gets to experience that.”
Looking back on the commitment she made as a freshman, Julia said she didn’t expect to make a genuine connection with someone through the Best Buddies program.
“She’s a part of the family. She can reach out to any of us. That’s how our chemistry works.”Ursinus junior Julia Ewing on Celine Heffron-Pero
“I thought it’d be something fun I could do to take my mind off school. But Celine is different,” Ewing said. “We’re able to talk about soccer or school or vent to each other. There’s really no boundaries.
“I think Celine feels that with me and the rest of the team. She’s a part of the family. She can reach out to any of us. That’s how our chemistry works. It’s an inner-squad. We don’t struggle by ourselves. We’ve very open.”
Celine — who in addition to playing Unified soccer, has competed in athletics, basketball, skiing and snowshoeing — has attended NWSL games with Julia as well as a US Women’s National Team game at Talon Energy Stadium in Chester for Julia’s birthday.
“[Hanging out with the team] makes me feel like I don’t have a disability. I can be myself,” Heffron-Pero said.
This year, the Bears invited Celine to their annual Halloween practice. They’ve gone out to grab some pizza and to the Sixers. They all shared a Friendsgiving feast together and text and Snapchat one another all the time.
“Julia makes sure that I’m included in pretty much everything,” Heffron-Pero said. “It’s really nice to do. They really make me feel welcomed at Ursinus.”
The Bears, however, weren’t without their on-field struggles this season as they played to a final record of 4-11-2. That can be challenging for any athlete, let alone student-athletes who are also trying to balance academics and life.
“We had a bit of a rough year, but we’ve always prided ourselves in our team chemistry and our connections with each other,” Ewing said. “Through all our hardships, we’re able to keep that positivity going strong.”
And Celine, for sure, has played no small role in helping to foster that unbreakable culture of emotional strength.
“Honestly, it’s just amazing how impactful [our friendship] has been,” Ewing said. “Just to know that even with the challenging season we just experienced, we still have this person who’s a die-hard fan no matter what.
“She doesn’t care about the wins and losses. She just loves us for us. And that means everything.”