PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Unified sports, in which high school students with and without special needs partner up, is a growing movement, and George Washington High School hosted a high stakes bocce tournament on Thursday.
"It's like bowling and I can throw the ball and it's actually fun," said Margaret Lassiters, who has been to the Unified Bocce Championship five times now.
The Strawberry Mansion High School senior has been practicing with her teammates for the past eight weeks. They're among 26 teams from 13 high schools taking part in the tournament hosted by Special Olympics Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia School District.
These kids certainly play to win, but Special Olympics president and CEO Matt Aaron says Unified Sports goes far beyond winning and losing.
"The real magic of that impact of that program is it helps transform and change the entire culture in schools," Aaron said.
Kids who might otherwise be targets of bullies are instead brought into the fold and feel included, while their partners get an eye-opening life lesson.
"They're just like us. If you join the program, you'll understand they're just like us and they should be treated the same way," said 18-year-old Nestor Vlahopoulos.
The program has become so successful that the school district has made it part of the Philadelphia Public League and plans to launch Unified Physical Education in every school.