Greater Johnstown special needs league

Several members of Greater Johnstown’s interscholastic unified indoor bocce team pose for a photo at Greater Johnstown High School. They are, front row (from left) Kelci Forsythe, Head Coach Emily Buzzard and Kaitlyn Baldauf , and back row (from left) Gabe Zimmerman, Anthony Penna, Jordan Hoyt and Yasir Robinson.

A new program aimed at promoting social inclusion for the area’s special needs students will make its debut later this month.

Established through the Special Olympics, the Unified Champion Schools program promotes inclusion by implementing inclusive youth leadership opportunities, and inclusive sports such as badminton and bocce ball.

Five area school districts are coming together to compete against one another in what Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio is referring to as a “leveled playing field.”

“This opportunity provides our students to have a chance to engage in a sporting activity that really is just unifying kids from both the regular education world to the special education world,” Arcurio said. “This is a platform for our students where special ed students and regular ed students have the opportunity to be equally successful.” 

Special needs students in the district will now have an opportunity to participate in a bocce ball league that will include Bedford Area, Berlin Brothersvalley, Conemaugh Township and Somerset Area school districts.

“This unified program is really giving kids a way where they, even if they may have a lower IQ or a diagnosis, can still be as competitive as students who aren’t diagnosed with challenges,” Arcurio said. “So it levels the playing field.

“And for students who are sometimes not included in those groups with the athletes, and what have you, it’s an opportunity for those students to be included with their peers and be a part of a peer group that is socially experienced that they don’t often get to be a part of.”

According to Greater Johnstown’s Director of Special Education, Amie Lumadue, the interscholastic unified indoor bocce league will feature teams consisting of no less than six students.

“Right now we have one team that will be competing,” she said. “You’re allowed to compete with two teams, so our hope for next year would be that we would be able to have the second team.” 

Conemaugh Township’s middle and senior high school principal James Foster said he’s excited for his district to take part in the program and looks forward to competing against Greater Johnstown and the other area school districts.

“It’s a great opportunity for the kids of all participating capabilities,” he said. “It just kind of adds to the culture that we’ve been trying to create here at the school. We have a Life Skills classroom, and the students that are there we incorporate into many facets of our school. However, you don’t see a lot of them get into the world of competition.

“To have an opportunity like this where they’re going to get to be officially on a school team, intermingling and participating with fellow students here in our school, I just think it creates a more positive atmosphere and a great opportunity for those kids.”

The bocce ball league is endorsed by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and will allow for participating teams to compete in post-season play, similar to other interscholastic sports.

“I think it’s neat that they take it as far as the state championships,” Foster said. “During the basketball championships weekend, these kids will be down there competing on the same days in the same venue as those that will be competing for the state basketball championships.

“This is just a neat opportunity for all involved.”

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.

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