Mt. Lebanon special-needs students compete in first year of bocce
Vince Sortino of Upper St. Clair doesn’t ask why. He asks, why not?
Hence, the Baldwin High School athletic director has been more than happy to host Special Olympics events. For the third year in a row, he helped the Highlanders stage the Allegheny County Unified Indoor Bocce Championships.
The competition featured 15 teams, including an entry from Mt. Lebanon High School, vying for a spot in the PIAA championships set for March 24 at the Giant Center in Hershey. Teams, divided into two divisions and grouped by similar abilities, consisted of six to eight players, half with and half without intellectual disabilities.
“They are one of our student athletes,” Sortino said, “and they deserve as much recognition as any athlete in the school. These kids work just as hard and it’s really awesome to see them have an opportunity to compete. So, why not do this? It brings a sense of pride to regular individuals as well as the special-needs athletes; the partnership and sportsmanship as well as the group mentality that it promotes.”
John Grogan concurred. The Mt. Lebanon athletic director, as he is with every scholastic event, attended to support his club.
“Honestly, the program has been terrific for the kids and they are excited to be in the championships. For me, it’s exciting to see them compete and perform. They are athletes just like any of other students and they deserve an opportunity to compete and be included in activities. These kids can do so much.”
Nicole Eshleman , a personal care assistant and aid at Washington Elementary School, has background in special education, having taught previously in Winchester, Va. When she learned Mt. Lebanon was starting a team, she threw her hat into the ring for the coaching position. She thought it would be a good fit for her educational skills.
“I love working with kids with disabilities and there are not a lot of activities available for kids with special needs so I thought this was an excellent and exciting opportunity for them, especially for it being the first year and starting at the ground level,” she said.
During its initial campaign, the Lebo bocce team fared well. The Blue Devils split their regular-season contests, beating Avonworth and falling to Moon. In the championships, Lebo lost its first match, 4-3, to the 2016 PIAA champions from Baldwin. The Blue Devils finished fifth overall in the competition while the Highlanders lost their title to Elizabeth-Forward, which will be sending one of its two teams to the state finals.
About the Transitions Program
Balancing school, work, and life can be hard enough for even the most adaptable students. But special-needs students often require a different kind of support, and few districts offer their students a comprehensive school-to-life support system. That’s why Transition-to-Life Program was created.
Transition is a specialized ESY program that serves Baldwin Whitehall School District students in seventh grade through the age 21. Here, program leaders help students learn the daily life skills that are so critical during their transition from school to living the rest of their lives, such as financial management, cooking, cleaning, using public transportation and more as well as helping them prepare for any post-secondary education they may pursue.
Eric Jankoski has served as the Transition Coordinator for the past eight years. His team, including health and physical education teacher Tim Laughlin and life skills support teacher Joshua Stahl, has helped hundreds of special-needs students live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. But that’s just one part of the program’s impact.
“Another success for us is teaching the students without disabilities how to see the person and not the disability,” says Jankoski, who welcomes student volunteers to assist with the program by way of partners’ programs or the Special Olympics Club, as a means of expanding their own worldview
“One of our biggest goals is to create a more inclusive culture that values acceptance of everyone and excludes no one,” Jankoski said. “The more people we can bring on board to this movement, the better our community can be for everyone
About Special Olympics
Special Olympics Pennsylvania Interscholastic Unified Sports (IUS) is a fully-inclusive co-ed high school sports program that brings together a proportional number of students with and without disabilities on teams for training and competition. Special Olympics Pennsylvania provides year-round training and competition in 21 Olympic-type sports to nearly 20,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Visit specialolympicspa.org for information.
Winning results, however, are not the objective of the Unified Games, which commenced like all Olympiads with opening ceremonies and a flaming torch. Athletes were instructed to “have fun” and remember “sportsmanship.” Those two qualities were evident early as teammates enthusiastically and eagerly helped out each other. For example, Jessica Demsky suggested some tips to her brother, Robert, before he rolled the first ball of the competition.
“As a coach, you are not allowed to talk to them during the competition,” Eshleman said. “You teach them a skill and it’s up to the team members to work toward a common goal of working together. (As coaches) we developed the strategy and skill but they worked together to do whatever they were able to do in order to overcome obstacles and become one as a team. By the end of the season, we were a family and the team members became closer on a different level.”
That certainly was the case for Demsky. She was already close with her siblings. A senior, Robert, has Downs Syndrome as well as Autism to go along with some visual issues. A freshman, Alex, has been diagnosed with ADHD.
Because Robert wanted to join the team, Jessica, agreed to play. The team practiced twice a week after school.
“For me, a team was a whole new experience but, even though everybody was serious and the competition was serious, there was nobody that was a superstar with a big attitude,” Jessica said. “I really liked it and for the special-needs athlete, it’s a great thing for them because they look forward to it just as much as we, their typical peer, do. They train hard and get excited about competing.”
During competitions, the special needs athletes, those with physical or intellectual disabilities, are paired with a partner. The Lebo squad featured four athletes. In addition to Robert Demsky, they were Lillian Dalzell, Christopher “C.J.” Petrucelli and Jerry Rutledge. In addition to the Demsky sisters, Jack Broadhurst and Giovanna Morello participated as partners.
Jessica Demsky noted that while all the competitors work hard and bocce is a ‘tough’ sport, she admitted, “it’s all luck.”
“But don’t tell all those old Italian men,” joked Demsky’s mother, Valerie. “It’s 10 percent skill and 90 percent luck.”
Jessica considers herself lucky to have her siblings and have the opportunity to participate in an activity that is inclusive. Her hope for her siblings is that they can join in and be whole just like any typical kid, and have a good time.
“All I want is for them to be able to experience what we all experience,” she said.
While Lebo dreams of one day being a state champion, Eshleman shares the desire of her players. She hopes to increase participation in the program and improve student body involvement.
“Of course our long standing goal will be to make it to Hershey for the state championships,” she said enthusiastically. “But the relationships these kids have built and grown are far and above the best part of the experience. I could not have asked for a more excitable, compassionate, fun group of players for our pilot year.”