Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Community Impact

Inclusion and 10 Years of ESPN Partnership Celebrated at Perth Amboy High School

The gymnasium at Perth Amboy High School is at capacity with the student body, gearing up for the traditional students vs. teachers basketball game. Bleachers on both sides of the court are filled with red and white, it resembles a game of high magnitude. “Oh boy, the game that’s the best part,” says principal Keith Guarino ahead of the match-up. “It’s about getting to that point. I expect cheers, I expect chills, I expect students to stand up and stomp in the stands. Everyone is going to be wondering who’s going to score the next point.”

“Bragging rights are on the line,” he says later.

The school band begins to play songs encouraging the students to make noise. Feet stomping. Chants echo across the room and cheerleaders lead the charge. This game has a bit of a different vibe to it, though. With ESPN and Special Olympics in the house, the Perth Amboy community was celebrating a special accomplishment. After hard work integrating Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® programming into Perth Amboy, they are being recognized by Special Olympics and ESPN with a National Banner presentation.

Students and teachers stand pose for a group photo in a high school gym. They are standing behind a sign that reads "ESPN Special Olympics Unified Sports Global Presenting Sponsor".
The Perth Amboy High School community came together with Special Olympics and ESPN to celebrate the school's success in creating a more inclusive environment.

ESPN general reporter Coley Harvey is in attendance as the head emcee. He runs through the makeshift tunnel of cheerleaders and sprints across the court catching the attention of all who are in attendance. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he interacts with the student body. The game is just moments away. 

“It was exciting,” Harvey says about living in the moment. “This is the first time that anything like this has happened for me, and I’ve always wanted to figure out ways that I can just do more at ESPN and give back more because I’ve seen so many of my colleagues do the same thing.”

Throughout the game, the faculty and students compete in a back-and-forth competitive game. At times the game gets physical, especially as the student team's big man forces his way into the paint. The atmosphere in the gymnasium is so electric, it’s not even noticeable that it’s still normal school hours.

A basketball team huddles on the sidelines of a gymnasium. They are all wearing matching red and white uniforms and the gym is packed with fans.
The student vs. teacher game is a tradition at Perth Amboy High School, but this game took place during the school's National Banner presentation.

For athlete Bajahir Sheppard, it’s a moment he’s been waiting for. Sheppard had tried out for the school’s varsity basketball team but after not making it, he shifted his focus to Unified basketball. And for good reason as he was a fan favorite. As the action continued to heat up, chants of “Bajahir, Bajahir, Bajahir” broke out.

The game was filled with plenty of exciting plays and a variety of fouls, mainly from the faculty team. “I heard that the ref is going to be throwing Ts at staff all through the game,” Guarino says with laughter in his voice.

The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® program promotes inclusion throughout the hallways of the school community. Through Unified Sports, whole-school engagement, and inclusive youth leadership, system-wide change can be seen in grades K-12 and on college campuses.

“It is certainly an honor to be recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School,” says Dr. David A. Roman, the superintendent of schools for the Perth Amboy Public Schools district. “This recognition speaks about our unrelenting commitment to foster equity and inclusion in this world. We are proud and we want to acknowledge our students for their success and our staff for their ongoing support.”

This spring, Perth Amboy is one of three schools to be recognized by ESPN. Throughout the district, the Unified soccer, basketball, and track teams combine approximately equal numbers of students with and without disabilities. Each team follows the rules and regulations of the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Special Olympics Unified Sports® teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, with and without intellectual disabilities. It makes the competition atmosphere and experience much more authentic and memorable. Unified Sports was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.

Two individuals stand in a gym in front of a banner that reads "Special Olympics National Unified Champion School Perth Amboy High School 2022-2026".
Dr. Jessica Neu (left) and ESPN's Coley Harvey pose with Perth Amboy High School's National Unified Champion School banner.

Dr. Jessica Neu got involved with Special Olympics eight years ago while she was the director of special services at another high school. She worked with mentors and people close to her to make that school district inclusive. It was only right when she found her spot at Perth Amboy that the same vision and leadership would follow.

“The program had a tremendously positive impact on students with and without disabilities in my former district,” Dr. Neu says. “And while it was somewhat challenging to get the program up and started, it’s hard sometimes to bring people along when you’re a leader and you have a vision of something and they aren’t on board right away, but once they are, it was wonderful and remarkable.”

Kate Jackson, ESPN's vice president of production, has been involved with Special Olympics for many years. She wouldn’t have dreamed of missing an event like this, especially since it marked the 10th anniversary of the ESPN and Special Olympics relationship.

“For me, a local Unified event at a school that is being celebrated for national recognition shows how deep the movement actually is,” Jackson says with much pride echoing in her voice. “I think it’s easy to rally around a World Games: it’s big, it’s beautiful, its 7,000 athletes, it’s in a gorgeous location. But when you see communities that are living Unified every day, that’s how I know the future will be better than what we have today.”

Regardless of the size, events like the one at Perth Amboy can make such an impact that even those involved can’t gauge it within the moment. In the weeks following the banner celebration, there has been a level of inclusion that even exceeds what they had before.

“Since the banner celebration event on March 8 at Perth Amboy High School, there has been a lot of ‘buzz’ around the school and district, especially with the pictures and captions shared by Special Olympics and ESPN Citizenship,” Dr. Neu says. “Immediately following the event, I noticed one of our students on the Unified team signing autographs on a rally towel. It is very exciting for students and staff to see themselves and their school community represented in a positive way; a true reflection of who we are at Perth Amboy High School.”

Sitting in the rafters of the Perth Amboy gymnasium are several banners recognizing athletic achievements. Ranging from team sports to individual accolades at the varsity level, a new achievement hangs high next to the rest—one that reads Unified Champion School, a banner that celebrates everyone regardless of who they are.

ESPN has been the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports since 2013. Over these last 10 years, ESPN has donated over $10 million to Special Olympics allowing Unified Sports to expand to all 6 regions and grow to over 1.8 million participants.

Recommended Content

Podcast Highlights ESPN and Special Olympics Relationship

Special Olympics has come a long way since 1968 and now it goes beyond just sports. In the past two weeks, the Landscape Podcast, a series of episodes highlighting people, programs and businesses changing the landscape for individuals with any type of disability, has focused on Special Olympics and ESPN.
2 Min Read

ESPN’s Tony Reali is Excited About Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® Growth

ESPN’s Around The Horn Host Tony Reali attends Generation Unified 2019 in Washington, DC with Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools locations and activities.
1 Min Read

ESPN and Special Olympics Expand Relationship

Eight-year Broadcast Agreement and Extension as Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports®
7 Min Read