GUILFORD — The stories are countless from over the past year of people missing time with friends, missing time doing the things they loved to do, missing things in general due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many cases, it was multiple things people missed out on. Kiera Stankewich, for instance, missed more than just her junior girls tennis season at Guilford. She also missed time spent in person with friends she made through Buddy Tennis, Unified Sports and Special Olympics.
All three organizations have been so rewarding in Stankewich’s life.
“When the pandemic hit, one of the saddest things was losing Unified Sports and Special Olympics,” Stankewich said. “That (losing her junior tennis season) was also tough. I’m super-happy to be out here (playing). (The pandemic) put things in perspective. We (the team members) all get along really well. It was hard missing a season.”
Stankewich is a senior captain on the Grizzlies’ squad. She has seen action at both No. 3 singles and No. 1 doubles. Even though there was no high school season last spring, she was able to play some tennis at The Guilford Racquet & Swim Club. Adapting to changes in Buddy Tennis and Unified Sports was a little more difficult.
Buddy Tennis allows those with Down syndrome a chance to not only to improve their skills in the sport, but also for the opportunity to help improve both their social and emotional development. Unfortunately that takes close contact to teach — something that hasn’t happened during the pandemic.
But that hasn’t stopped Stankewich, 17, from constantly asking Chris Marra — Guilford’s girls tennis coach and the man who helped start the Buddy program at the racquet club — when the program will return.
“We teach the basics, but it is more about being role models and mentors to them,” Stankewich said.
Said Marra: “I would love to do it. My son (who is Special Needs) does it. Kiera has been on my case to do it. She loves working with the kids. It’s, ‘Can we do it safely?’”
Guilford High has over 100 members of its Unified Sports program — including both athletes and partners — according to Jaye Carlson, Stankewich’s Unified Sports and Special Olympics coach. The Special Olympics incorporates several teams from the Central Shoreline area.
Carlson said Stankewich is a partner in both programs. She has spent a lot of time volunteering, which not only has allowed her to become a partner, but also given her the opportunity to also coach Unified Sports.
Guilford is “one of the most amazing places in terms of inclusivity,” Stankewich said. But with the pandemic came some significant changes. The one-on-one in-person time went away. Communication was done remotely. There were a lot of zoom meetings, a lot of FaceTime. Stankewich said she has played games online with them.
“I’ve been in touch even though we can’t always see each other. It’s been hard for all of us,” Stankewich said. “They are the most loving people you will meet. They are some of my best friends. I can always count on them to make me feel good. It’s a mutual relationship. It’s not like, ‘I’m helping or working with you’ it’s like we are partnering together. They have my back and I have theirs.”
Said Carlson: “It’s been very difficult on everybody over the past year. If three to five days a week you were doing this, then there is nothing, it’s very difficult (to adjust).”
Stankewich has been involved in Unified Sports since the fifth grade. She was named Partner of the Year of the Unified Sports’ middle school program in Guilford in 2017 while in the eighth grade. That is awarded to “someone who has gone above and beyond,” Carlson said.
Before the pandemic, Carlson said Stankewich was also involved with an inclusive sign language program Carlson teaches.
Stankewich also put together an independent study project last year involving sign language. Stankewich and a friend combined on the project.
Stankewich said both were going to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford for further research, but COVID nixed those plans. So instead, they conducted interviews online and made a virtual presentation of their project.
“(Stankewich) is someone who is a leader and passionately committed and truly does love the two programs she is involved with through me,” Carlson said. “I could see her taking the program Gulford has and implementing it in her future.”
Stankewich will attend Washington and Lee next fall in Lexington, Va., where she can continue her volunteer work helping others — in hopes of better times when in-person communication can return.
Stankewich said she was admitted into the school’s Bonner Program, a community service program, which will help her continue her passion. She is considering career paths in allied health or environmental studies.
“(Washington and Lee) currently has some community partnership with individuals with disabilities, but I hope to start a program like Unified Sports, that specifically connects people through sports, on campus,” Stankewich said.
For now, there is a tennis season to be completed. Guilford comes into this week at 6-3, two of those losses coming against the top programs in the Southern Connecticut Conference, Hand and Amity.
“Kiera is a fantastic captain, a great example to set for the next group of girls,” Marra said.