If you were present at last Saturday’s UNC Gymnastics meet, you might have noticed a new face: honorary member Thea Weinert.
Weinert is a local gymnastics fan with Down Syndrome, who celebrated her 12th birthday at the UNC quad meet last weekend.
"It was the best birthday present ever," Weinert said.
The UNC gymnasts noticed that some of the women’s lacrosse players had been working closely with Kendall Geer, a boy with Down Syndrome. Similarly, Tar Heel volleyball players worked with cystic fibrosis patient Kelsie Houston through a program called Team Impact.
Both Geer and Houston were made honorary members of their respective UNC teams, and members of the gymnastics team took notice.
"We wanted to do something along those lines," senior Julianna Love said.
Scholastic all-Americans Love and junior Sophie Silverstein, who work to promote team outreach for UNC gymnastics, got in touch with the community outreach director at the University in June of 2020. The two wanted to see how they could make a young gymnastics fan’s dreams come true by embracing them as a part of the Tar Heel gymnastics team.
That’s when they were introduced to Weinert. Her mother, Verena, is friends with Rachel Geer, whose son Kendall serves as the honorary member of the women’s lacrosse team. Geer informed Weinert that the UNC gymnastics team was looking for an honorary member and suggested that Thea might be a good fit.
The North Carolina gymnasts got to know Thea throughout the coming months — making phone and Zoom calls to her in pairs or small groups to assure that she got to interact with everyone. Since then, some of the girls have formed a very personal connection with their honorary member.
"Julianna and I have been to their house and played in the backyard with Thea,” Silverstein said. “Seeing how much joy these little things we do can bring Thea is really great.”
When Thea isn’t playing or having dance parties with Love and Silverstein, she attends team practices and meets. At practices, she watches the Tar Heels perfect their skills and in return, they help her with skills of her own like flipping into the foam pit.
On meet day last Saturday, Weinert stood proud next to her teammates in her UNC Gymnastics leotard. The team has had such an impact on Thea that she enrolled in a gymnastics class.
“They hang out with me so much,” Weinert said about the North Carolina gymnasts. “I love them.”
The Tar Heels continuously find ways to make their honorary member feel included. The team invited Thea to paint pumpkins with them at Halloween and have participated in her family’s Buddy Walk for Down Syndrome awareness at the Weinert house two years in a row.
“I can’t brag enough,” Verena said. “The girls are just amazing how they all help Thea.”
Through gaining an honorary member, the North Carolina gymnasts have gained a support system and a set of memories that they won’t soon forget.
“We have just been so lucky to work with her family,” Love said. “It’s really taught us to enjoy everything and cherish the time we have to make memories with her.”
When Thea became an honorary member of the UNC Gymnastics team, the Tar Heels and Thea’s family created a supportive community amongst themselves. The Weinert family feels equally as lucky to work with the team, who has not only embraced Thea, but the entire family.
“To see how she is embraced by the team, so many times, it brings tears to my eyes,” Weinert said. “She gets so much of their attention and so much of their love.”
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