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Banner day for a unified North Penn HS

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TOWAMENCIN – Last December, North Penn High School started a Unified Bocce Team. This team went on to win the state championship in its very first season, but they did so much more than bring home a trophy. They strengthened acceptance and inclusivity at North Penn, and for this outstanding achievement, all of North Penn’s Unified athletes and Special Olympians were celebrated with a Unified Pep Rally on November 19th at North Penn High School.

Unified sports began in the spring of 2017 when special education teacher Megan Schoppe, speech therapist Kerry Byrnes, and sophomore class advisor and inclusion facilitator Megan Jermain started the Unified Track team. The success of this sport lead to North Penn High School being asked to create a Bocce Team.

In Bocce, a sport very similar to long bowling, a team consisting of eight partners and eight athletes works together to win their matches. This teamwork harbors an environment of inclusion and camaraderie between the team members with and without intellectual disabilities.

North Penn’s Bocce team won their first state championship in the first year of the team’s creation. No one on the team had experience in Bocce, but out of the sixty-three teams in the state, North Penn came out on top. After winning the state championship, the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania urged North Penn to apply for a national award to recognize all of North Penn’s efforts in the acceptance and inclusion of everyone. North Penn was one of ninety schools in the country and one of only four schools in Pennsylvania to receive this honor. To celebrate this feat, North Penn held a Unified Pep Rally on November 19th to recognize their Unified athletes.

Marissa Werner
The Philly Phanatic made a guest appearance at the pep rally.

The pep rally was full of energy from students, staff, and the Philly Phanatic, and a sneak peak of the Unified Sports Polar Bear Plunge Fundraiser honoring the amazing athletes of the Unified Bocce team, Unified Track team, and the Special Olympians as well as North Penn’s inclusivity. It ended with a banner falling, designating North Penn High School as a National Banner Unified Champion School. This further solidifying how fundamental the presence of unified sports are to making North Penn High School a better place.

Bocce and all unified sports and activities have left a lasting impact on those who are involved with them.

Kristen Panaski, a health and physical education teacher and head coach of the Bocce team, is very aware of this.

“I feel like since I’ve started teaching to now, people are way more accepting of people with disabilities, and that’s what we want because the world’s going to be a better place if we’re all accepting of each other. Not just disabilities, who you are, where you come from, that you have a place to be that you feel safe and wanted and I think that’s important. I think it’s important that everyone finds their niche in this building and a lot of students have found their niche because of Unified sports,” explained Panaski.

It’s just really awesome to see how much the group has grown and the love that everyone has. It’s always so welcoming…it’s really awesome. I’m really proud of North Penn”

— Mia Melchior - NP Class of 2018 grad and member of Unified Bocce team

“It’s just really awesome to see how much the group has grown and the love that everyone has. It’s always so welcoming…it’s really awesome. I’m really proud of North Penn,” said Mia Melchior, who graduated from North Penn in 2018 and was a part of the Bocce team when it first started. This involvement led her to join the Unified Club at Penn State.

“Definitely join [Unified Sports and Special Olympics]. I’ve always said that these Special Olympic athletes have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them or help them. It definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things and I’m definitely very thankful I joined,” added Melchior.

Ryan Schoppe, a partner on the Bocce team, was so proud to see the athletes receive their honors.  

“It was just awesome seeing it throughout all the hard work we’ve done fundraising and just the amount of time we’ve spent with the kids. I know it means a lot to them to come to this moment and really be recognized in the full way they should be,” Schoppe reflected.

Michael Twimane plays on the Unified Bocce and Track team at school. He was very happy to be honored at the pep rally. His favorite part of the pep rally was walking down the aisle and having everyone cheer for him and his teammates.

“They should try it and it helps to students with disabilities.” said Twiname.

Unified sports are essential to North Penn to ensure inclusivity and acceptance stays strong in the culture of the school, and these athletes fully deserved the recognition they received.

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