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Brought together by bocce

Created date

December 31st, 2008

When Mary Loris competed in this year s Special Olympics Unified Sports bocce tournament, winning the gold medal wasn t her goal it was just the icing on the cake. "Everyone is a winner," says Loris, who helped organize the tournament held at Myers Pavilion in Baltimore. Special Olympics Unified Sports is an initiative to bring athletes with intellectual disabilities together with volunteers from the greater community to compete in various games. The program is the first of its kind in the U.S.


Once a week for six weeks, Loris and more than two dozen volunteers from Charlestown and Oak Crest paired with their Special Olympics counterparts to learn the rudiments of bocce and prepare for the tournament. Charlestown volunteers joined adults from St. Peter s Adult Learning Center of Baltimore, which provides a supported employment and vocational day program for developmentally disabled adults. In Parkville, Oak Crest players teamed up with athletes from the Arc of Baltimore. The Arc is an advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities. "Working with the people from the Arc and getting to know them was great," says Oak Crest resident Betty Ledford, who had only played bocce occasionally before joining the team. "They re such a loving group of people that appreciates everything you do for them." The tournament marks the fifth formal outing involving the two communities; they have held the competitions biannually since 2006. Seasoned bocce player and tournament organizer for Oak Crest Carolyn Sibley was thrilled to be a part of the tournament this was her third year competing. "The whole event was just like the Olympics," says Sibley. "They had a torch and gave out medals. It was so nice to meet people and make friends with our teammates. We cheer them, and they do the same for us. When they score a point and smile, it makes you feel so good. The whole experience was very rewarding."

Good game

Mike Bovino, consultant for Special Olympics Maryland and director of the Unified Sports Program, selected bocce as a means of connecting the two groups. "Bocce is an ideal sport that people of all ages can play because it is not physically intimidating," says Bovino. Another benefit of bocce, he adds, is that it promotes social interaction; the teams play together for six weeks leading up to the competition. "While they re practicing and learning the game, they re also socializing and building relationships," he says. According to Bovino, playing the game improves attitude too. "Since bocce encourages teamwork, both the residents and our players gain a greater respect for and understanding of each other," he says. "I really enjoy seeing the relationships being built and how much they care about each other."

The ripple effect

"I ve gone to conferences across the country and presented the Erickson and Unified Sports Program as a model," says Bovino. "It has sparked an interest with communities in Arizona and Florida that are looking to follow the lead of Charlestown and Oak Crest as early as this spring." As for Loris and the other members of Charlestown and Oak Crest s bocce teams, they look forward to finding new ways to nurture their friendships with the Special Olympics athletes more than just twice a year. "It does your heart good to be a part of something like this," says Loris. "We all got so much out of it." For more information on the Special Olympics Maryland, visit