Special Olympics Pennsylvania head coach Erica Milliron might not be as experienced as other Special Olympics coaches, but she still understands the importance of Special Olympics Unified Sports® and the lessons it teaches students. Within just three years, she introduced Unified bocce to Bald Eagle Area High School, a Special Olympics Unified Champion School®, intending to spread the message of inclusion throughout her community and state. And in the process, she has earned recognition for her efforts.
"When our district was approached about starting a Unified bocce program, Erica volunteered to spearhead it," Douglas Dyke, Athletic Director for the Bald Eagle Area school district, says. "Not only did she take a fledgling program to the state championship in the first year, but even more impressive was how she got the entire school district to support the team. I have been in my position for 27 years and I can say without question, no one has put [in] more time outside the regular workday promoting the ideals that Special Olympics stand for."
Each day ahead of practice, Milliron gathers with her bocce team for team meetings. Feeling very much like a family, team members share about their days along with jokes and funny stories. "We're a little squirrely sometimes like a family, so if you imagine sitting down with your whole family at Thanksgiving dinner, things just sometimes get a little crazy," Milliron says.
Once the team has broken the ice, it’s time to get to work.
“My team does not like to run, but we run a little bit and we stretch,” Milliron says about warm-ups. The team then moves right into practicing specific bocce skills through drills. While many schools practice during school hours, Bald Eagle Area High School does not. "Our practices are after school and everybody's a little hungry by then," she says about always adding in a quick snack break to practice. Later, she says, "We usually scrimmage. Sometimes we scrimmage each other, sometimes the teachers, sometimes other sports teams at our school, like the soccer team or the basketball team."
Oftentimes in life, it's essential to step outside your comfort zone to experience new things. For Milliron and the rest of the Bald Eagle Area High School students and staff, it was learning bocce. Quickly it became a sport everyone wanted to be a part of, regardless if they participated in another varsity sport or not.
In a letter written by Alyssa Packer, one of Milliron's Unified partners, Packer shares the type of impact Milliron has on her and the entire student body. She shares all it took was one year for the school atmosphere to change. “The camaraderie of the bocce team sets an example for inclusion, and I made lifelong friends by joining the team,” Packer says. “(Coach Milliron) wanted us to understand that being a part of a team means to work together and practice hard, but most importantly have fun and enjoy it.” Whether it be competing in bocce, having fun singing karaoke or at dance parties, the team exemplifies what a family is.
And that's precisely what Milliron wants to promote. While winning is great, being a family goes beyond the competition field. "My team members will tell you that when we go to a meet, whether we win or lose, that's not what I'm asking about. I'm always wanting to know if they had fun," Milliron says.
While that's the message she sends to her team, it's also one that resonates with the entire community and surrounding schools.
"I think one of the big messages that we send is that Unified Sports is fun and it makes it that people want to join our team because they know that they're going to have fun," Milliron says. "It makes it really prestigious in the school."
In 2019, a new student who didn’t know how to roll a ball or even what bocce was joined the team. Nonetheless, that student was welcomed with open arms and the team sprang into action.
"Some of my team members just stepped right up and took that student under their wing and just practiced and practiced and practiced and now he's a really, really good bocce player," Milliron says with a smile on her face, showing excitement about the lesson her students learned that day.
Milliron says while it happened naturally, it all circles back to that family-like atmosphere she has cultivated over the past three years.
"Erica truly understands the concept of Unified Sports and inclusion for all," Matthew Aaron, President and CEO of Special Olympics Pennsylvania, says. "The bocce teams, as well as members of the school's Leo Club, make up the Unified Club. Some of their other activities include volunteering for our State Summer and Winter Games, working together to build a float for the Homecoming Parade, hosting pep rallies and raising money to help support UCS [Unified Champion Schools] growth across the state. Erica truly understands Special Olympics and what it means to be part of the Unified Generation," he continues saying.
"Her focus and fortitude in trying times is a testament to the strength of her character," Fay Shaheen, a Unified bocce athlete, says about Milliron. And that strength was showcased during the challenges of the past year.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milliron has been focused on making decisions to keep her students engaged. “Throughout the COVID-19 quarantine, Erica did not let her team lose sight of what they have learned through the Unified Champion Schools program,” Aaron says. "She held weekly webinars with the athletes and partners so they could share their feelings, stay connected and have a little fun.”
The idea that bocce is now recognized as a full varsity sport at Bald Eagle Area High School is a feat Milliron holds close to her heart. They were the first to have a Unified Sports program in the school district and now other schools are following their lead. Because they are changing people's perception of what all athletes can be, the mission to spread inclusion becomes even more important. Milliron continues to advocate for adding more Unified Sports at her school and increasing student engagement in the Unified Club.
Milliron loves the work that's being done across her state and throughout the North America Region, including more and more Special Olympics College Clubs on campuses. But she knows there’s so much more to come.
"This is the beginning of the whole revolution, and I think there's so much room for it to grow," Milliron says, also mentioning with much confidence, "across our country, we have so many great things that could happen with the inclusion of Unified Sports."
Whether it’s at Bald Eagle Area High School or in neighboring communities, Milliron continues to push the importance of Unified Sports and inclusion, implementing life lessons in sports and everyday life. And while she’s humbled to receive a nomination for the SONA Outstanding Coach award, she looks forward to gaining more experience so she can impact future students.