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Special Olympics Unified Indoor Bocce Ball Teams Promote Inclusion, Support

Sports competitions often deliver heartwarming and sometimes life-changing stories. For example, the pride and feelings of accomplishment that arise after winning a championship game can bring participants and spectators to happy tears—especially when an underdog comes from behind to win.

We often witness these stories as they unfold on football fields, basketball courts and on the baseball diamond. But have you ever seen a bocce ball competition that gives you that same feeling?

Several area high schools provide students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to discover new strengths and abilities through the ancient sport of bocce ball. Formed through a partnership with the Special Olympics Interscholastic Unified Sports program and supported by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) and the Bureau of Special Education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, these leagues are all about inclusion and support.

What Is Bocce Ball?

The first documentation of bocce dates back to 5200 B.C. This Italian-born sport eventually took root in America’s sports culture. Now, it is flourishing in an even more meaningful arena—Special Olympics’ Unified Indoor Bocce.

Founded in 1968, the mission of the Special Olympics remains the same today: “To provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.” The ball-rolling sport of bocce provides an opportunity for Special Olympics’ athletes to experience this mission while developing friendships and camaraderie with their schoolmates.

The general principle of the sport is to roll a bocce ball as close as possible to the target ball, which is called a palina. The bocce teams play indoor in school gyms using specialized bocce balls. What makes the Special Olympics’ Unified Indoor Bocce unique is the teams’ compositions.

Deer Lakes High School has two teams of eight players. “Each team has four students with intellectual disabilities called athletes, and four students without intellectual disabilities called partners,” explained Autumn Weleski, Life Skills support teacher and the head coach for Deer Lakes’ bocce ball teams.

Team members have various requirements. “There are two mandatory practices each week, and the partners cannot participate in other sporting activities during the season, which requires a sacrifice by the students,” said Tracey Settembrino, Pine-Richland High School autism support teacher.

Those sacrifices don’t seem to dampen the spirits of participants and fans. “We’ve had to turn some partners away because the teams were full,” said Weleski. “One parent of an eighth-grader said her daughter is already asking when she can sign up to play next year!”

According to Jenna Wilson, learning support teacher at Deer Lakes, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania provides training, seminars and support for coaches.

“There are various strategies that we teach the students during practice,” added Weleski, “but during the game, we are not allowed to coach, and that’s hard for true competitors!”

The goal for each program is to involve the entire student body, teachers and parents. “We aim for whole school engagement; we want fans in the stands, cheerleaders cheering and the dance team dancing,” said Settembrino.

“Seeing our students competing on a varsity level and even earning varsity letters is extremely rewarding,” added Wilson.

The community benefits as well. “We have a very supportive community and incredible parental involvement,” said Settembrino, “which opens up a whole new world for these kids.”

Wilson agreed. “We look at it as everybody getting an opportunity to learn, grow and be a friend to everyone.”

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