If you want to see what determination looks like on a bocce court, just watch Jessica Williams, a student at Poinciana Elementary School in Key West, prepare to roll.
“She took the ball in two hands,” said Robyn Acker, a physical therapist for the Monroe County School District, describing a recent practice with the Special Olympics athlete.
On a typical afternoon, Williams and five schoolmates take time to practice bocce, a program designed to give parents a break from having to transport their kids to after-school practices.
“If you provide the practices during the school day, the parents are much more involved in getting them to the competition,” Acker said.
In December, Acker put together a new six-member bocce team to compete in the March 25 Special Olympics Area 11 Games at the Key West bocce courts at Atlantic Boulevard and White Street.
“It started with the court being put in in December,” Acker said, referring to a new clay court behind the ballfields at Poinciana and beside the back of the city’s firehouse. “We started practicing in January.”
City employees and volunteers teamed up to install the new practice court on campus.
The March 25 tournament, which needs volunteers to work four-hour minimum shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., will feature more than 100 student athletes from Monroe and Miami-Dade counties competing in bocce and cycling.
While the Special Olympics aren’t new to the Florida Keys by a long shot, this new bocce team represents a first for Poinciana.
“This is the first time we’ve had a Special Olympics team from Poinciana that practices during the school day and is a combination unified partner and Special Olympics team,” Acker said. “It means you have put together teams that combine both Special Olympics athletes and typically developing peers.”
That makes Poinciana a Unified Champion School, Acker said.
Together with bocce coach Susan Rineer, Acker is helping prepare Special Olympics athletes India Hall, Liz Ryan and Williams, along with unified partners Parker Curry, Colbin Hill and Tyler Clifford.
At a recent afternoon practice, Hill threw a ball perfectly into the target marker, called a jack or a pallino. It was a team celebration, as the other members lined up to high-five him.
“It’s something I’m passionate about, that all children be educated and socialized together in order to make a better world,” Acker said. “The only way to do that is to take our existing programs and develop them so more and more children can participate.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen