GUILFORD There are countless stories from the past year of people missing time with friends, missing time to do the things they loved, missing things in general because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many cases, it was several things that people missed. For example, Kiera Stankewich missed more than just her junior girls tennis season at Guilford. She also missed the time she spent personally with friends she’d made through Buddy Tennis, Unified Sports, and Special Olympics.
All three organizations have been so rewarding in Stankewich’s life.
When the pandemic hit, the loss of Unified Sports and Special Olympics was one of the saddest things, Stankewich said. That (losing her junior tennis season) was tough too. I am super happy to be here (playing). (The pandemic) puts things in perspective. We (the team members) get along very well. It was hard to miss a season.
Stankewich is a senior captain with the Grizzlies squad. She has seen action in both No. 3 singles and No. 1 doubles. Although there was no high school season last spring, she was able to play tennis at The Guilford Racquet & Swim Club. Adjusting to changes in Buddy Tennis and Unified Sports was a bit more difficult.
Buddy Tennis gives people with Down syndrome an opportunity to not only improve their skills in sports, but also to help improve their social and emotional development. Unfortunately, that requires close contact to learn something that didn’t happen during the pandemic.
But that didn’t stop Stankewich, 17, from constantly asking Chris Marra Guilfords’ girls tennis coach and the man who helped start the Buddy program at the racket club when the program will return.
We learn the basics, but it’s more about being role models and mentors to them, Stankewich said.
Marra said: I would love to do it. My son (who has special needs) does. Kiera has been in my case to do it. She loves to work with the children. Are: can we do it safely?
Guilford High has more than 100 members of the Unified Sports program, including both athletes and partners, according to Jaye Carlson, Stankewich’s Unified Sports and Special Olympics coach. The Special Olympics includes several teams from the Central Shoreline area.
Carlson said Stankewich is a partner on both programs. She spent a lot of time volunteering, which enabled her to not only become a partner, but also have the opportunity to coach Unified Sports.
Guilford is one of the most amazing places in terms of inclusivity, Stankewich said. But with the pandemic came some significant changes. One-on-one personal time went away. The communication was done remotely. There were a lot of zoom meetings, a lot of FaceTime. Stankewich said she has played games with them online.
I’ve been in touch, even though we can’t always see each other. It’s difficult for all of us, Stankewich said. They are the most loving people you will meet. They are some of my best friends. I can always count on feeling good. It’s a mutual relationship. It’s not like I’m helping you or working with you, it’s like we’re working together. They have my back and I have theirs.
Carlson said: It has been very difficult for everyone for the past year. If you do this three to five days a week, then there is nothing, it is very difficult (to adjust).
Stankewich has been involved with Unified Sports since fifth grade. She was named Partner of the Year of the Unified Sports high school program in Guilford in 2017 in eighth grade. That’s awarded to someone who has done their best, Carlson said.
Before the pandemic, Carlson said Stankewich was also involved in an inclusive sign language program that Carlson teaches.
Stankewich also set up an independent study project on sign language last year. Stankewich and a friend worked on the project together.
Stankewich said both went to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford for further research, but COVID ignored those plans. So instead, they conducted online interviews and made a virtual presentation of their project.
(Stankewich) is someone who is a leader and passionately committed and really loves the two programs she’s involved in through me, Carlson said. I saw her follow Gulford’s program and implement it in her future.
Stankewich will go to Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia next fall, where she can continue her volunteer work helping others in the hope of better times when personal communication can return.
Stankewich said she was accepted into the school’s Bonner Program, a community service program that will help her continue her passion. She is considering career paths in related health or environmental studies.
(Washington and Lee) currently has a community partnership with individuals with disabilities, but I hope to start a program like Unified Sports, which specifically connects people through sports, on campus, Stankewich said.
For now there is a tennis season on the program. Guilford starts 6-3 this week, two of those losses come against the top shows in the Southern Connecticut Conference, Hand and Amity.
Kiera is a fantastic captain, a great role model for the next group of girls, Marra said.
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