Her “court” consisted of about 150 members of various East Bay unified basketball teams who dined, socialized and danced the night away while being treated like royalty at the “Unity Ball.”
The formal ball was the dual senior project undertaken by Julia, a special needs student at Portsmouth High School, and her friend, fellow senior Brooke Waters.
“(Julia) wanted everyone to enjoy a non-competitive social environment where intellectually disabled and non-disabled students could enjoy a prom together in an accepting environment,” said Nancy Fitzgerald, a physical education teacher at PHS and the school’s unified basketball coach.
Unified teams, in partnership with the Rhode Island Special Olympics, are made up of students both with and without intellectual disabilities. PHS and the middle school have unified basketball teams, while the high school also has a unified volleyball program.
Ms. Fitzgerald, who acted as Julia’s mentor for the project, got the idea for the ball after Julia’s original senior project wish — doing an internship through the Disney College Program — fell through.
“She actually wanted to work at Disney, but unfortunately you have to be a college student,” said Ms. Fitzgerald.
But the Disney connection, in addition to Julia’s other passions, played a part in a new idea. Besides enjoying unified sports — “I like exercising and getting strong and making new friends,” Julia said — she also loves to get down on a dance floor.
“Julia has attended all the dances here. She loves to dance,” said Chris Bowler, one of the unified basketball coaches. “That’s what brought on the idea of organizing the Unity Dance for her senior project. Then we actually thought of the Glen (Manor House), because it looks like a castle and Julia loves Disney. She’s been to Disney several times with her family. It seemed like a fit.”
Brooke agreed. “Julia loves princesses and Julia is a princess,” she said.
Once they had the idea, the real work began.
Brooke wrote a grant to the Special Olympics, which made a generous donation. Then she and Ms. Fitzgerald designed a flyer to promote the event.
“One day they actually went down to Newport and asked for donations,” said Ms. Bowler, adding that several banks also helped sponsor the event. “Once the word got out, everybody was on board.”
Some students also lent a hand.
“A student here at school does deejaying, so we asked him if he’d like to play the music. He donated that to us and he has his own equipment,” said Brooke.
Since it was a formal ball team members wanted to travel in style, so the Portsmouth team took a limo to the Glen.
“There were two limos that were donated,” said Brooke. “Prizes were donated so we’d have enough so all the special education kids would get to go home with a small gift so they’d have something to remember it by. The food was donated, too.”
In addition, Becca’s Closet in Tiverton donated dresses and gowns for many of the girls attending the dance — the ball had a white-and-gold color scheme, although it wasn’t written in stone — and local businesses provided free finger foods.
“Everyone’s been so on board with it; they think it’s such a sweet idea and they’ve been great with donations,” said Brooke, who’s not a unified team member but has rooted for them as a cheerleader. “Ms. Fitz and Ms. Bowler have done so much; it wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
One of the people who donated their services at the ball was Anna Tovello, a special education teacher who took all the formal team portraits as students posed on the 90-year-old home’s grand staircase.
“I used to be an event photographer, and this is bringing it all back for me,” said Ms. Tovello, who was touched by what she saw Thursday night. “It’s an amazing event and just to see the outpouring of support from the community is very rewarding.”
Students from East Bay, beyond
Unified team members from Portsmouth, Tiverton, Barrington, Middletown, Newport, Chariho, North Smithfield and Cranston turned out to the Manor House, and divided their time between the dining room and library (where they ate) and the ballroom (where they bounced around to their favorite songs).
PHS Principal Robert Littlefield, dressed to the nines, was among the many chaperones who assisted the unified basketball coaches.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he told a student.
There were no “dates” per se at the Unity Ball, as everyone went as a team.
“The idea was to be very accepting and for teams to get to know other teams and make new friends in a less competitive setting — something more fun for them,” said Brooke.
Judging by all the smiles Thursday night, it was a magical evening enjoyed by all.
Ryan Costa, a member of the Portsmouth unified team who was looking sharp in a black vest and red tie, summed it up in a one-word review of the Unity Ball:
“Awesome!” said Ryan, before bouncing away to the dance floor.
Check out our gallery of photos by Richard W. Dionne Jr. below. For more information about unified sports programs, visit www.rihssports.com.