Unified Bocce Ball: A Journey of Unity and Joy 

William W. Marshall, Penn Cambria School District | 01/26/2024

Scene from the 2023 Unified Bocce Ball State Tournament in Hershey
Scene from the 2023 Unified Bocce Ball State Tournament in Hershey.

Unified Bocce Ball: A Journey of Unity and Joy 

Written by: William W. Marshall, Superintendent, Penn Cambria School District and an adjunct for SFU's Department of Graduate Education in the Superintendent/Letter of Eligibility program

As the Superintendent of Penn Cambria School District, I have witnessed countless moments of triumph, joy, and unity within our school community. One particular experience stands out, a story that unfolded during the 2019-2020 school year – the introduction of Unified Bocce Ball to Penn Cambria.

It all began for me at the Giant Center in Hershey during the 2019 state basketball championships. Little did I know that the Thursday morning prior to the basketball action would open my eyes to something truly special. It was the Bocce Ball championships, an event that showcased the power of unity and inclusion. 

Unified Bocce Ball, a program offered and funded through the Special Olympics of PA, brought together a co-ed team of students from grades 9-12. What makes this program extraordinary is its equal composition of Special Olympics-eligible students and those without intellectual disabilities. 

The spark for bringing Unified Bocce Ball to Penn Cambria ignited within me that day at the Giant Center. Witnessing the unity and diversity among competitors, the joy radiating from students as they competed and collaborated as a team – it was an impactful experience. The student sections, parents, and family members stood united in their support for every student on the court.

Determined to bring this experience to our students, we partnered with Saint Francis University's Rural Education Alliance for Leaders (REAL) Institute to offer students the chance to compete in a large gym setting. As an executive committee member with REAL, I knew a partnership of this kind made the perfect synergy. Picture this: six bocce courts on the gym floor at Altoona, with 96 students competing simultaneously. Our goal extended beyond the competition – we aimed to provide these students with an opportunity to interact with peers from other schools and acclimate them to the big gym setting. 

Our vision is crystal clear. We want these students to thrive, not just on the court but also in life. Qualifying for the Bocce Ball Championships at the Giant Center on Thursday, March 21, 2024, is a dream we hope each team realizes. By then, these students will have gained invaluable experience in that setting, helping to ensure they won't be overwhelmed by the 'big time' atmosphere.

The mission and goals of the Special Olympics resonate deeply with SFU/REAL and the ethos of Penn Cambria High School. This program champions unity and diversity, reshaping the climate and culture within the halls of each building. The students participating in Unified Bocce Ball are no longer mere spectators; they are integral parts of something larger than themselves.

Walking onto the court, supported by their families, friends, and fellow students, these athletes experience a sense of pride that transcends mere victory. Winning isn't their primary focus – being part of a school endeavor previously enjoyed only as fans means the world to them. Banners in the cafeteria on game day and individual posters in our gym now celebrate them, just like any other student-athlete.

Unified Bocce Ball has become a symbol of unity, transforming lives and fostering a sense of belonging at Penn Cambria. As we embark on this journey together, I am humbled and inspired by the boundless joy and camaraderie that this program has brought to our community. The court is not just a playing field; it is a story of unity, diversity, and pride, which will leave a lasting mark on the hearts of everyone involved.

About the Upcoming Tournament

The Saint Francis University/REAL Bocce Ball Tournament will be held  on Saturday, Feb 3 at Altoona High School. Anyone interested in learning more about the tournament  can email Bill at marshaww@pcam.org

About the REAL Institute

The Rural Education Alliance for Leadership (REAL) Institute  is designed to help local communities and educational agencies come together in efforts to support the needs of rural schools.