For NSHS seniors, statewide Unity Ball a proud tradition

For NSHS seniors, statewide Unity Ball a proud tradition

North Smithfield High School senior Alyssa Narodowy holds a scrapbook of photos from a previous Unity Ball that she is using to help plan this year’s event. An NSHS senior has coordinated the event, offered free of charge for unified sports participants statewide, five out of the past six years. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Alyssa Narodowy, a senior at North Smithfield High School, knew what she wanted to do for her senior project before she entered high school.

As a first-year participant in the district’s unified basketball team, Narodowy had attended the 2015 Unity Ball, an end-of-season celebration for participants in unified sports across the state. The experience stayed with her, and last summer, she began planning and coordinating this year’s Unity Ball as her senior project. Nearly eight months later, the plans have come together, and Narodowy is ready to host the 2019 Unity Ball at Kirkbrae Country Club this Friday, March 15.

She’s not the first NSHS student to take on the immense task of planning a formal dinner-dance for more than 200 participants and families. In 2014, senior Alyssa Deslauriers coordinated the event as her senior project, the first student from NSHS to take on the task. The annual ball had been started by a unified sports participant from Portsmouth but, without a volunteer coordinator from that school to take it over, was in danger of falling away when Deslauriers stepped in. The first NSHS-hosted event took place at the West Valley Inn in West Warwick and cost close to $12,000.

Since then, a senior from NSHS has hosted the Unity Ball every year except 2018, when the ball did not take place for lack of a volunteer coordinator. The school’s graduation requirements allow students to complete a senior project on any topic they’re passionate about, offering an opportunity for them to invest their time and energy in the event. For participants of unified sports, the student-run event has become a year-end staple. Students from 38 schools were invited to attend this year’s event, which is offered free of charge for all participants.

Narodowy no longer plays in unified sports due to her busy extracurricular schedule, but she remains committed to the values of the program, which is overseen by Special Olympics Rhode Island. During unified sports, students such as Narodowy, referred to as “partners,” play alongside athletes of varying abilities to set the athletes up for success. It’s an important goal for Narodowy, who said she has been interested in special education as a possible career since middle school.

“I have a few different ideas, but special education’s always been on my mind. It’s always been something I want to do,” she said.

Narodowy is also interested in event planning, a handy skill considering the magnitude of the event. Planning for the Unity Ball includes months of fundraising and donor solicitation along with tasks such as booking a venue, hiring a DJ, planning raffles and sending out invites to the state’s unified teams. Joanne Forti, a mentor for the project, estimates students spend about 90 hours coordinating the event, far beyond the 15 hours of community service required for Rhode Island students.

“It’s a lot. They’re exhausted by the end of it, but the night is an exhilarating night. They love it,” she said.

Forti, the mother of three NSHS graduates, first got involved with the project in 2014, when Deslauriers was seeking a mentor to help her coordinate the event. Since then, she’s served as a mentor to every NSHS student who’s planned the ball and seen countless unified sports participants close out the season with an unforgettable night.

“The night itself is just amazing. It’s the best prom that anyone will ever go to because there’s no judgment, it’s just dancing and fun,” she said.

For Narodowy, the program is about making sure every student, regardless of ability, feels included. She’s expecting around 200 athletes and partners, including 15 from North Smithfield, at this week’s event and is thrilled to follow in the footsteps of other NSHS seniors. Next year, she’s hoping a new senior will take up the challenge of making sure the end-of-year celebration, like the work that goes into the season, is open to all.