UNION, NJ — Three Burnet Middle School students have made history as the Union public school district’s first Special Olympics team to compete in track and field at the state’s annual summer games, with two members bringing home gold medals.
The New Jersey Special Olympics Summer Games, a three-day event that took place June 7 to 9, was held at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J.
The athletes were coached by Burnet Middle School teacher Maria Fiordilino and paraprofessional David Castaneda, who joined them at the three-day event, where the students stayed in dorms at the college.
“The athletes really rose to the occasion at the state level,” Castaneda said in a June 15 phone interview. “It was unbelievable, and sometimes I can’t believe how much they elevated their game for this.”
Morris O’Neal, a sixth-grader who Castaneda dubbed his “track star,” took home a gold medal for the 25-meter dash as well as silver in the 50 meter race.
Eighth-grader Orenthea Senior won two gold medals in the shot put and javelin events, and Wilbert Jones, a seventh-grader, earned a silver medal in the shot put.
Castaneda, who described the opening ceremony and the entire weekend as “out of this world,” has been involved with the district’s Play Unified program for three years as a bowling coach.
“I was really looking to expand the program and have them compete on their own, especially with the track and field events,” Castaneda said.
Play Unified, spearheaded by Burnet special education teacher Diana Pielech almost four years ago, is part of the Special Olympics and joins people of all abilities on the same team. The program is “dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences,” according to its website.
The local team is registered as the “Union Farmers,” just like other teams in the district, and Castaneda said this was important to the athletes.
“I registered the team as such because they wanted to be the Farmers like our other teams, and the Special Olympics gives them that opportunity,” he said.
Castaneda and other coaches practiced every Monday with the athletes as part of the school’s Special Olympics Club. Burnet Middle School gym teacher Amanda Flisler is also a Play Unified coach.
Prior to the state finals, the team participated in a regional track and field event in Old Bridge on April 27, and they qualified for the statewide competition, with the athletes each taking home two gold medals.
On June 7, before the team left for Ewing, Union law enforcement officers, members of the Union High School cross-county running club and other organizations participated in the annual Torch Run for the Special Olympics.
According to Castaneda, he and the other coaches will try to expand the program by organizing Unified soccer tournaments starting in the next school year, and he’s looking to get other schools involved in Special Olympics events.
The Union team was set to receive certificates and special recognition from Superintendent Gregory Tatum at the June 18 Board of Education meeting.
The local school board recently announced that, as part of the more than $137 million budget, paraprofessionals with six years of employment or less with the school district could be hired through staff services starting next year. While he didn’t want to comment further on the situation, Castaneda, a paraprofessional in the district for four years, did address the board at the April 30 budget hearing.
“Working as a para has afforded me the opportunity to work with students beyond the classroom,” he said. “I’ve been involved with our ‘Play Unified’ program for several years now, watching students with disabilities grow beyond their limitations.”
“It is also in the classroom where miracles are made,” Castaneda said. He also related an anecdote about one student who came to the district only speaking a few words could speak in sentences just a year later, thanks to his teachers and paraprofessionals.