Unified Sports is a varsity program at North Branford High School and that’s just one of the things Diane Artiaz loves about being part of it. Diane, the program’s head coach, also likes how Unified Sports always seems to bring a smile to face of everyone who participates.
Diane has taught special education in the North Branford school system since 1978 and, 10 years ago, she came to the high school as a Life Skills teacher. Diane works with students who have disabilities and so it was a natural transition for her to join North Branford’s Unified Sports program.
“I could not think of anything more rewarding than to coach Unified Sports because it brings joy to everyone involved,” Diane says. “Their pledge at every game is, ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ Every one of mine lives that. They’re just out there to promote friendship. They’re good kids.”
Diane feels the fact that Unified Sports is a varsity program at North Branford results in more participants and provides them with the true experience of being part of a team. Diane also appreciates all the people who support Unified Sports at the school.
“For a lot of students not on a varsity team, but want to do sports, it gives them the opportunity to do a team sport,” she says. “There are so many people that are very involved and that’s because of the support we get. The administration has been wonderful in supporting us.”
Diane doesn’t need to push to find players or volunteers, who are also called ‘buddies,’ for Unified Sports. Instead, people are drawn to the program because of the way she runs it, and that’s helped North Branford build one of the bigger Unified Sports organizations in the state.
“I have anywhere from 30 to 35 students with me. We’re one of the larger teams and it’s never a problem to find volunteers. They form new friendships and the kids that I have on my team truly want to have the opportunity to play a sport,” says Diane, a 1974 North Haven High School graduate. “I think a lot of the students that do it want to be special education teachers, nurses, and these students show leadership qualities. They just want to help and to be involved.”
Having all of those students on board is a great thing for the entire community. North Branford Athletic Director Kory Kevorkian appreciates their involvement, along with Diane’s impact, as much as anybody.
“Diane is a longtime Life Skills teacher at the high school and has been coaching the Unified program for years,” says Kevorkian. “She has positively impacted the lives of many student-athletes to pass through the program, both participants and buddies.”
Several of those buddies have worked alongside Diane to promote Unified Sports outside of their time at the high school. Two of them also earned scholarship funds by writing an essay detailing how Unified Sports has made an impact in their lives.
“I brought 10 students with me to [represent North Branford at the Youth Leadership Summit] and we were asked to do a presentation to all the other schools involved. They talked about how we get students to join and how we get the number of students we do. We promote this through academics and other social forums at the high school,” Diane says. “Recently, I’ve had two students win the Michael’s Cup Award, which is a scholarship essay contest. We’ve won two within the last five years.”
Both of those things mean a lot to Diane, but what’s stuck with her the most is a letter she received from the mother of one of her Unified Sports buddies earlier this year.
“I recently received a letter from a mom and it was a thank you letter for the opportunity for her daughter, who is a partner, to be a part in such a wonderful organization because it’s brought more to her daughter in terms of friendships, self-confidence, and pure joy of being on a team. It was a very beautiful note and it was really nice,” says Diane. “I think that Unified Sports brings something to everyone, not just the athletes and partners. A lot of the students will take the course I teach and I always assign a reflection paper, which is about how much being in the program has meant to them. They all write about how it has given them patience, self-confidence, new friends, and leadership skills that some didn’t even know they had.”
In terms of the Unified Sports program’s future, Diane plans to continue doing everything she can to help this ever-growing community keep blooming throughout North Branford and the state.
“As its evolved, it was just the sports, but now, they want to push for inclusion with the school community,” says Diane. “There were more than 750 people in attendance last year at our banquet. It sure has grown from the first time we held it, where there were about 60. This just keeps growing.”