Building a Unified Future at Iona Preparatory School

“Are you the lady that does the Plunge?”

It’s a question Pat Gray loves to hear. As an English teacher at Iona Preparatory since 1999, Pat first got involved with Special Olympics New York via our famous fundraising campaign, the Polar Plunge. Since then, Iona Prep’s partnership with our organization has flourished.

Forging a Partnership

Located in New Rochelle, NY and founded in 1916, Iona Preparatory School is a private, Catholic community inspired by the charism of Blessed Edmund Rice and the Christian Brothers to develop young men who strive for spiritual, intellectual, and physical excellence. Beginning with a personal invitation from Special Olympics NY staff, Iona Prep founded its own Plunge team in 2007.

The results have been magnificent. Fundraising efforts began with $2,000 in their first year and steadily built each year following, peaking at $87,000 in 2023. They’ve been the top Polar Plunge fundraising team in the state six times, and in total, they’ve raised more than $439,000 for our organization.

“I go into the water each year up to my neck, and it’s freezing,” said Pat. “But jumping in the water doesn’t do anything. It’s about the cause…it’s about fundraising for the Special Olympics athletes.”

So where do those funds go? Besides offering free sports training and competition to 42,000 athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout New York State, one of our fastest growing programs is Unified Sports. That’s where Iona Prep got involved next.

Expanding to Unified at Iona Prep

In March of 2023, Sedona Paykin was watching a family friend compete in Special Olympics Unified Sports. Inspired by what she saw, she returned to Iona Prep, where she teaches mathematics, and surveyed her students. Her question was simple: Was anyone interested in bringing Unified to Iona Prep?

“There was an overwhelming amount of ‘yeses,’” said Sedona. That was in March. Unified at Iona Prep began just three months later.

Unlike Unified Champion Schools throughout our state, Iona Prep has no students with intellectual disabilities. Rather, students from several schools and a community-based organization, the South East Consortium, regularly visit Iona Prep to participate in various activities. Students and participants unite both on and off the field of play, with practices and scrimmages in basketball and field day-style athletic events, along with social activities like art, board games, pottery, and music. Iona Prep is looking to expand into other areas, with the goal of someday offering a yearlong certificate program.

With their emphasis on service, Iona Prep even hosted a Valentine’s Day party, inviting residents from a nearby assisted living facility to make cookies at their school, then donated the cookies back to those residents. The results of programs like these have been transformative.

“When you’re there, you can see how much everyone enjoys it,” said John Cinguina, an Iona Prep junior who joined Unified last year after Plunging since his freshman year. “It’s an incredible program that I’m so glad we have at Iona Prep.”

“Unified is a great opportunity to talk and learn,” said Iona Prep student Jack Costiglio, another junior who started with the Plunge and later joined Unified at Sedona’s suggestion. “I met a student named Abraham who wanted to learn to shoot a basketball and throw a football. We built a good friendship together. I keep in contact with him to this day.”

“I love going to the weekly sessions,” said Max Shearon, a student from nearby Eastchester High School, who joined Unified at Iona Prep and became an assistant coach. “I love the sports, music, and art activities. The group has become close friends, and seeing them each week is what I like the most.”

This program is changing not just individuals, but families, too. Student Jake Castro joined Unified at Iona Prep in part because his uncle had a disability. When Jake’s mother, Sandi, came to watch her son compete in the school’s year-end basketball program, she was overwhelmed.

“I want you to know I’m so proud of my son,” Sandi later told Sedona, Jake’s teacher. “This means so much to me as a mom.”

What’s Next for Iona Prep

With another Polar Plunge just a few short months away, Pat and the Iona Prep Polar Plunge team will be hard at work on further fundraising.

“The impact of the Polar Plunge had become more meaningful to our students by uniting Special Olympics NY athletes with our own,” Pat said. “We always want to show our students the impact they are having on the lives of others through their fundraising efforts.”

As for Unified at Iona Prep, the program will continue to grow. Pat noted that “students and teachers are talking about [the program] throughout the building.”

“Our goal is to create a future in which people with special needs are treated with dignity and respect in all avenues of life,” said Sedona. “Together, we’re proving that’s possible.”


To learn more about Unified at Iona Prep, please visit their YouTube channel. To register for Iona Prep’s upcoming free summer Unified Sports program, please contact Sedona Paykin at spaykin@ionaprep.org.

If you would like to bring the Unified movement to your school, please click here to learn more.