|Members of Woodfill's Unified Sports bocce team explained the program that provides opportunities for athletes of all abilities to play together.|
By Robin Gee
Unified Sports is a program through Special Olympics that partners athletes with and without special needs in a program designed to build relationships, leadership skills, essential foundational skills, self-esteem and all-round good sportsmanship and camaraderie.
Woodfill students presented on their school’s Unified Sports program at the November meeting of the Fort Thomas School Board. The goal of the program, which includes 28 students from all grades, is to build and promote the concept of unified sports throughout the whole school and the community.
Eli, a Woodfill student and Unified team member, explained, "Special Olympics is only in the Northern Kentucky counties of Boone, Grant and Pendleton. Any child with a disability who wants to compete in sports must travel to play. Special Olympics currently has 15 sports, however there are only five unified sports – cheerleading, bowling, track and field, golf and bocce. Unified teams can compete at the state, national and world levels. We hope to compete at each of these levels in the future."
"It is our hope that we will continue to move on throughout this and grow unified bocce across the district... We really have become the unified bocce club for the whole region," added Principal Keith Faust.
Becoming a Unified Champion School
An additional goal would be for Woodfill to become a designated Unified Champion School. Criteria for a Unified Champion School set forth by the Special Olympics is to embody three elements — whole-school engagement, unified sports and youth leadership.
At present there are only three Unified Champion Schools in Kentucky. If Woodfill were to join this group, it would become the first elementary school in the nation to do so, but Faust said that goal is secondary to building a strong unified program within the school with focus on the PE program, after school club and the bocce team.
Another team member, Kamden, who joined the team with her brother Mason, described the PE program, "The goal for the unified PE class is to create an exclusive class that allows athletes and partners to work on foundational skills...Foundational skills support basic health and fitness such as body awareness, strength, flexibility and coordination."
She shared a quote from her PE teacher Matt Gessner, "I am absolutely thrilled with the amount of foundational skills in our athletes. With the leadership of our students, this program is teaching all the necessary skills to be successful," he wrote.
An after school opportunity
The unified club meets after school twice a month. Said student Simon, "Our unified club mission statement is to work together as equal partners in inclusion and empowering kids to be leaders who stand for unity and inclusion within the school and community."
Woodfill teachers Holly Solzsmon (special education) and Natalie Heidrich (Title 1), and instructional assistant Kathy Burgin are club sponsors.
Heidrich explained that each month involves a theme. Last month’s theme was friendship, and the students learned about what makes a good friend and teammate. This month the students are discussing the concept of perseverance.
"We started off with the popular story of the Tortoise and the Hare, and we talked about how Tortoise is slow, but sticks to it and in the end wins the race. We talked about how this is true in their teams and in life. They will work with people with different strengths, and if they support each other, they will experience a win...We connect back to our mission statement, building leaders who stand for unity and inclusion," said Heidrich.
The students share the club’s themes and discussions with the entire school through posters and signage, announcements and sharing at the school’s monthly school meetings.
Bocce for everybody
Faust added that the favorite element for the students and all involved is the bocce team. The school provides a court, and holds bocce matches on Tuesday nights. He said sometimes 50 to 60 people come to watch the students play.
Students Luke and Lorenzo explained how they play the game. Basically, a small white ball called a pallino is thrown onto the court and then balls are thrown towards the pallino. Those whose balls land closest win. Teams of three compete against each other.
Brogan, explained his reason for signing up, "I signed up for an after school enrichment program and that’s how I got started. I wanted to sign up because I wanted to play with my brother because he doesn’t get to play sports and I wanted to help him improve and work together with my other teammates."
Indeed, the sport allows students of all abilities and ages play together and build relationships and friendships as they learn leadership and teamwork.
Carmen Sarge has two sons, Brogan and Lorenzo, in the program. He serves as a coach for the team and gave a parent’s perspective on this unique opportunity. "It’s actually a real honor for me to be here to say a few words... To see how much fun they have and how included they feel when they are out there playing a sport with other kids is just amazing."
Sarge said when his older son Brogan was playing basketball in the Take Flight program at school, Lorenzo asked to go to every one of his practices. "And when you are a parent, especially of a child with special challenges and abilities, you really long for them to be included and feel included...With regular sport that’s not always available to some of these kids. Bocce was a solution to this issue that we as a family had been struggling with over the years."
He explained that, not only did his son get to compete with kids who might excel at other sports, he is on the same team with them and has the opportunity to form the bonds and relationships that happen between teammates.
"It’s been wonderful for Lorenzo and for Brogan as well. It benefits both of our boys...And, it’s a lot of fun. After the game one of the kids was going around hugging everybody. Their eyes light up; it’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about the program."
Faust said the team is wrapping up now due to the cold weather but will be back playing in the spring. He invited the entire community to come out to Woodfill and cheer on the team. For more, check out the video students made about their Woodfill Unified bocce team experience.