Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Moments of 2019

The things that Special Olympics Pennsylvania athletes, coaches and volunteers have accomplished in 2019 are nothing short of sensational.

And so as we take time to savor these final few hours of the year and look ahead to 2020, we want to share our list of Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Moments of 2019.

We’re releasing half the list today (Nos. 6-10) and will publish the top five moments tomorrow as you prepare to ring in the new year!

As always, we can’t thank you enough for all of your support. We truly wouldn’t be able to do what we do without you. So without further ado…

SPECIAL OLYMPICS PENNSYLVANIA
TOP 10 MOMENTS OF 2019

10) Michael “Money” Maker announces Steelers Draft Pick: The NFL Draft is an exciting time for any sports fan, but this year was particularly meaningful for Mike “Money” Maker, SOPA Vice President of Development Kraig Makohus and Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, who were all on stage to announce the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ 5th-round pick (141st overall) in this year’s Draft. Complete with ESPN coverage and a scrolling bottom line.

9) Union Unified team scores a huge victory: This year’s version of the MLS Exchange Game took a local rivalry to new heights as our Philadelphia Union Unified team traveled up the New Jersey Turnpike to take on the New York Red Bulls. After attending a training session and meeting the Union players and coach Jim Curtin in August, the team was ready to take the field for their Sept. 22 match. On an absolutely beautiful afternoon for soccer in Harrison, NJ, the Union Unified team jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead before holding on for a thrilling 3-2 win.

8) SOPA announces Center for Inclusive Leadership: Announced at this year’s Fall Festival at Villanova University, The Center for Unified Leadership will serve as a “center of excellence” for Special Olympics’ leader development efforts including research to foster a deeper understanding of how individuals with intellectual disabilities lead. The Center will also develop and review curricula, tools and training. This marked the first step in a collaboration with Special Olympics International, which will include a network of similar hubs all over the world based on further partnerships with universities, businesses, foundations and thought leaders interested in promoting inclusive leadership.

7) Ernie Roundtree runs the Boston Marathon: Every day we’re continually amazing by what our athletes accomplish. And Monroe County‘s Ernie Roundtree (who also happens to be a SOPA Board Member) qualifying for — and running — the Boston Marathon might just top them all. Ernie is an incredible long-distance runner and despite aches and pains throughout his body over the course of a grueling 26.2 miles, he finished what is arguably the most prestigious marathon in the world last April in 6 hours and 26 minutes.

6) SOPA Hall of Fame welcomes four new members: At this year’s Leadership Conference at Penn State University, not only did 15 Athlete Leaders earn degrees from Athlete Leadership University, but four individuals (two athletes and two volunteers) were inducted into the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Hall of Fame. Congratulations to Nina Kaneriya, Corey Markle, Bellamarie Bregar and Herb Packer on their incredible achievements within and outside the world of sport.

… That’s all for now, but be sure to check back tomorrow for Nos. 1-5!

Unified Spotlight: Faith Kaltenbach

Written by Faith Kaltenbach

My IUS story has been nothing less than amazing. During my junior year of high school, the Butler Area School District decided to become involved in the Unified Bocce program. I was hesitant to join at first. I was nervous about interacting with the students with disabilities, not to mention that I had no clue how to play bocce. Despite my doubts, I decided to join the team anyways and couldn’t be happier that I did. In fact, I enjoyed my first year of bocce so much that I decided to play again my senior year.

Faith (first row, third from the left) is pictured with her bocce team

These two short seasons were full of so many amazing memories. One of my favorite memories involves creating catch phrases for the game. For example, our one teammate would always yell, “Cut it ouutttttt”, each time one of the bocce balls hit the back wall. His energetic tone soon became contagious and this phrase became a saying that the whole team would repeat. It was a cool way to let loose and have fun at our practices. It even became an award that we would give away at our banquet, called the “Cut It Out Kenny Award.”

On the team, we recognized that we are all unique individuals with special talents to contribute. It was never a division between “us” and “them,” it was just us.

Faith Kaltenbach, on her Unified Bocce team

The memories of these seasons extended beyond the court and into the halls of our school. I think that everyone on my team would agree that the best part about bocce was the people who we played it with. Each player had a nickname that reflected something unique about them. We did not limit these nicknames to the game, but referred to each other by these names in the halls, usually greeting each other with a high five. These simple gestures broke down the walls of separation in our school. It showed people that the students with disabilities were no different from those without disabilities. On the team, we recognized that we are all unique individuals with special talents to contribute. It was never a division between “us” and “them,” it was just us.

We, as one team, worked together to do one thing….to win! I am now a freshman in college and have the opportunity to referee at the bocce games. I was not hesitant at all to accept this opportunity. To me, being a referee is a way to stay involved in the program and advocate for inclusive sports within the school setting. This program is important to me as it shows that students with disabilities don’t need to be separated. Seeing the changes that IUS has made in my high school is incredible. It destroyed barriers and spread the word of inclusion, opening doors for other inclusive clubs and activities. My IUS story isn’t over yet, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

Dick’s Sporting Goods is a proud sponsor of Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s IUS program.

A soccer family at Ursinus and Special Olympics

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.

Julia Ewing (front) and Celine Heffron-Pero (back) take a selfie at a USWNT soccer match

“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.

Ursinus’ women’s soccer team celebrating Celine’s birthday

“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.

Celine with Ursinus women’s soccer players Sarah Wixted (left) and Cailey Sanchez (right)

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.”

Celine & Julia. (All photos courtesy Celine Heffron-Pero)

Flag Football teams take gold at NIRSA Regionals

Over the weekend, two of our flag football teams won championships in their respective divisions at the NIRSA (National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association) Flag Football Regionals at the University of Maryland.

The Monroe Bears and Montgomery County Hammers took to the field for a weekend of stiff competition in very cold temperatures and both came out victorious!

In addition to winning team trophies, Monroe County’s Antoyne Perry won individual gold in the kicking competition and Montgomery County’s Shawn Loweree won individual gold in the punting competition.

Congratulations to all of the athletes and coaches who represented Special Olympics Pennsylvania in such a fantastic way!

Photo credit: Taraz Crowley & Joe Terriman