GARDINER — After the success of the Gardiner Area High School unified basketball team, coach Jess Merrill secured a grant for two more unified sports: bocce and volleyball.  

The collective thought from the adults at the first-ever bocce game Tuesday was the high school’s now three-season unified sports teams were possible because of Merrill. The coach is a life skills teacher at the high school who secured the grants and introduced the school to unified sports.   

Kassandra Reynolds, a parent of two students on the unified bocce team, attends every game and said she is glad that students at Gardiner Area High School can choose between three unified sports. 

Without Merrill, Reynolds said, her children would not be included in the way they are through unified sports, which blends students with intellectual or physical challenges with student partners. 

“It’s all because of her. Before that, there was no unified anything,” Reynolds said. “It’s great for them to be involved and not on the outside looking in. They don’t usually have that opportunity.”  


Bocce — a sport typically played on grass or at the beach, where two teams of four attempt to throw a solid ball closest to the target ball called the jack or pallino — had success in numbers at Gardiner Area High School, but not at other schools in the nearby region.

Carson Hembree holds a bocce ball Tuesday while he tosses the jack to start another round during an intramural unified bocce game at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner. In bocce the jack is the target that players try to get their bocce balls closest to. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Other schools in the area tried to form unified bocce teams, but could not get transportation or students in order. Merrill reached out to the Gardiner area teachers as a plan B to see if the teachers were interested in forming a team so the students have a variety in the teams they play.

Around 10 teachers signed up and in total, around 20 students – 10 student partners and 10 special education students make up Gardiner’s newest unified spring sport. Bocce has four people to a team, with two unified athletes and two student partners.  

At Wednesday’s game, three teachers and two administrators played, including Sara Sims, the principal of Gardiner Regional Middle School. 

Merrill said students at the middle school are already asking when they can participate in the unified sports and Sims said one of the instructors at the middle school is working to secure grants for a team at that level.   


“It’s amazing for kids to collaborate and understand and come together,” said Sims. “Our differences make us special, and this is a way to bring everyone together.”  

Unified bocce secured approval from the Maine School Administrative District 11 board of directors in April and is funded through a $1,500 grant from Special Olympics. Unified volleyball still needs approval from the MSAD 11 board, but once approved, it is funded on a grant, too.  The unified sports teams are funded on a grant for two years before the board can approve and fund the program as a varsity sport. 

Special Olympics Maine has offered unified sports for around 15 years and participation has grown from 17 schools offering some sort of unified program to 140 out of 151 high schools in Maine, said Ian Frank, president of Special Olympics Maine. 

Athlete Jasmine ‘Jazzy’ Caswell throws a bocce ball Tuesday during an intramural unified bocce game at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Around 10 years ago, Special Olympics Maine, which oversees unified sports, partnered with the Maine Principals’ Association to coordinate with the state’s sports governing body. Grants are yearly, and Frank said they add around 10 to 15 programs in Maine schools a year. 

Mike Bisson, from the Maine Principals’ Association, said basketball has the largest participation rate in Maine schools, with 71 out of the 151 public high schools offering the sport. Bisson said rural schools have a more difficult time starting unified programs, usually because of low participation numbers. 

It’s been a consistent growth, and I know there are some schools out there that want to be involved in the program, said Frank. “We see the true benefits through the whole school community, for everyone. In the hallways, in class, that’s where the real impact is in changing the whole school culture to one of inclusion and everyone feeling welcome.” 


On Gardiner’s team, most of the unified basketball players have returned for the spring sports season, including Jazzy Caswell, 17, who was a star player on the basketball team but has never played bocce before. Caswell was joined on the sidelines after her match by her grandmother, Deb Stewart, who watched Caswell play in her first-ever bocce game, which she said she did well in.

When asked if Caswell plans on participating in unified volleyball, she asked Stewart what she thought she should do.  

Britney Salley-Gero, from the other team, left, and athlete Carson Hembree and other players high five after an intramural unified bocce game Tuesday at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Yes! You should try everything,” her grandmother said.   

As volleyball still seeks approval from the Gardiner-area school district, Merrill said she still plans to coach field hockey while coaching unified volleyball.

Athletic Director Nate Stubbert credits Merrill for her success in getting numbers for the programs and it’s clear students feel the same way as they spent their time off the field chatting with Merrill while they wait for their turn in bocce.

“For the first year to get as much participation and for anyone to know what unified anything is, is amazing,” said Merrill. “Just the success we have had is great.” 

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