Monroe students partaking in New York Red Bulls exchange program

A group of Monroe Township High School students are getting to do something very cool this summer.

Back in April, Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls, based in Harrison, signed 12 students from Monroe to play on the Red Bulls’ Unified team, a collection of athletes associated with Special Olympics New Jersey. As part of the MLS Works Unified Exchange program, the team unifies athletes with disabilities and athletes without disabilities, hence the “Unified” label.

Other MLS teams, including the New York City Football Club, the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City, are also sponsoring “Unified” teams. These young squads practice at the MLS teams’ facilities, dress in their locker rooms, get their own kits and walk out to music for games.

“They get the full experience,” said Christina Giunta-Quarino, the senior director of field marketing and community relations for the Red Bulls.

“It’s a great experience,” added Kathy Dillon, the coach of the Red Bulls’ Unified team and a teacher at Monroe.

The Red Bulls’ Unified team is in the middle of a four-game schedule over the course of the summer. It just played a game against the NYC FC’s Unified team on July 14 at Red Bull Arena, which is located in the Hudson County community of Harrison. It will return to Red Bull Arena on Sept. 22 for a game versus the Union’s Unified club.

The results of these games don’t matter a whole lot, as there are no Unified playoffs at the end of the season. What matters is that the Unified players get to experience a high level soccer environment. The Monroe kids even practice alongside the Red Bulls sometimes, which excites the pro players almost as much as the Unified players.

“They are great together. The coaches and players enjoy watching the athletes play,” Giunta-Quarino said. “And the nice thing with our team is they get to know the Unified team. They have meals and train together.”

The Red Bulls’ Unified team played a game at Sporting Kansas City back on April 29, and the real Red Bulls were in the stands to cheer them on.

“We like how the program is going,” Giunta-Quarino said.

“Going to Kansas City gave them a sense of pride and independence,” Dillon added. “A lot of them have never flown before and they weren’t staying with their parents.”

In 2019, the 12 Monroe students are Gabi Casella, Jaime Santiago, John Herring, Megan Fannon, R.J. Edwards, Caitlin Belko, Justin Marcelo, Christian O’Hare, Cristen Belko, Kaitlyn Diaz, Kevin McCauley and Emma Ferguson.

Like most good sports teams, they come from different backgrounds and have different skill sets. But also like most good sports teams, they find ways to transcend their differences and even blend them into a larger whole.

“You would never know one has a disability or one doesn’t,” Giunta-Quarino said. “They celebrate the same, play the same way and cheer each other on.”

“It’s amazing to see high school students appreciate social inclusion and treat each other the same,” she added. 

Though the players might be different, the Unified team will likely go on beyond this campaign. The MLS Works Unified Exchange program has been going on for seven years. Prudential Financial has sponsored it for the last two years.

“Supporting and celebrating the Red Bulls unified team athletes, together with their friends and families, is one of the joys of being part of the Harrison and greater Newark community. These athletes inspire us with their grit and determination to overcome challenges and work to be their best, strongest selves,” said Niharika Shah, the vice president and head of brand marketing, advertising and global insights at Prudential Financial, Inc. “We look forward to another inspiring season of extraordinary sport.”

The program is in a healthy place.

“We do this to embrace social inclusion,” Giunta-Quarino said. “Anyone can play and soccer is for everybody.”