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The 13th Annual Unified Sports banquet. A stunning outpouring of joy. Raider star Carissa Carbone shines.

POSTED April 26, 2016
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney

SOUTHINGTON: Attend any Unified Sports program at a local high school and you will have an impossible time leaving without wondering how you managed to smile the entire time you were there.

Attend an awards banquet that gathers over 700 Unified Sports participants, family, coaches and friends and one may think you had an injection of Botox that left you with a permanent outward lip stretch.

The joy flows from these events, as my friend Mike McKenna (AD at Torrington High School) often says, parents and students should be required to attend a Unified Sports event so they can see what sports was truly meant to be.

Monday night, the CAS/CIAC celebrated these astounding programs from all over the state with awards given to schools and individuals.

The numbers in the room were remarkable.

42 Middle School students were honored from 21 middle schools.

122 High School students were also recognized from 61 high schools around the state.

The lengths that having this Unified Program has had on cutting down on bullying within our school systems can’t truly be measured but understand it has had a very, very big impact on the relationships between students with special needs and the mentors who become their true friends.

Of particular interest to folks in these parts was listening to one of their own, Torrington High School junior, Carissa Carbone read the essay she wrote that described just how important Unified Sports had become to her.

Carbone won the High School Essay contest with a remarkably well written and thought out expression of how being part of this has become such an important part of who she is and has shaped who she will become in the future.

A two-sport star (volleyball and softball) for the Raiders, Carbone is becoming one of elite individuals who represent the character her family and coaches have helped her be.

Seated to the table directly across from her were the Raiders two coaches, Gerry Carbone and RJ Poniatoski along with McKenna and Torrington Mayor Elinor Carbone. Carissa Carbone is Gerry and Elinor Carbone’s niece. McKenna and Poniatoski are THS Hall of Fame Inductees, as is Gerry Carbone. Her own table was filled with family and friends as well, all great supporters.

If the young Carbone keeps this up, she may join that group of Hall of Famer’s somewhere down the line.

Carbone told the story to the packed house of how when she lost her mother last fall, it was her new found friend, Mackenzie who helped her through it.

“In that very dark time,” Carbone said, “Mackenzie could be compared to that light at the end of a tunnel. She continually texted me every day, with no knowledge of what had been happening. She got my mind off of it, and she talked to me like everything was normal. She didn’t have to choose her words carefully or watch what she said, like everyone else had been doing, which will always be appreciated but talking to Mackenzie was different. I felt like my normal self, she helped me feel normal. The beautiful thing about this is Mackenzie had no idea what she was able to do for me so effortlessly. I will forever be thankful for being blessed with my friend Mackenzie.”

You see, it works both ways.

While on the court or field or bowling alley, you may notice the special needs student become the center of attention as they are encouraged by their partners but what the partners get back cannot be explained in words.

Joy has a way of overcoming everything and making you forget what was troubling you before you went to a Unified contest.

Monday night, another star who has become a shining beacon of light for the Torrington program, Grace Ingoldsby was on hand with her mom Mary and received an award with Carbone under the “One Athlete, One Partner Awards” portion of the program.

In one of the most moving parts of the night, Ian Hockley, the father of Dylan Hockley who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, spoke to the crowd about his son and presented each of the award winners with a butterfly pin with the inscription “Unified Teammate” on top.

The Hockley family has started a foundation called “Dylan’s Wings of Change” whose mission is to help children with autism and other related conditions achieve their full potential.

“Dylan had Autism,” Hockley said. “He had trouble communicating, his speech who come out very confused sometimes and he used to flap when he got excited. He would jump up and down and flap his hands, he was so excited. One day, his mother Nicole asked him, “Dylan, why do you flap?” She wasn’t sure what he was going to say if he was even going to answer at all. He just said, “Mummy, I’m the beautiful butterfly." That really stuck with us.”

Powerful words from a brave father and family who have thrown their support behind the Unified Sports effort in a big way.

The hundreds of folks who left that crowded parking lot at the Aqua Turf in Southington had just been part of something truly uplifting and here’s hoping it stays with them for a good long time.

Need to smile? Check for a Unified Sporting event in your area and it’s done.

Ear to ear, I promise, no Botox necessary.

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