For St. Francis High senior Isabella Panaccione, soccer has been a nearly lifelong passion. The standout defender joined the Mountain View Los Altos Soccer Club in second grade and is headed to Santa Clara University next year to continue her playing career.
Along with her devotion to excelling on the field and in the classroom, Panaccione is passionate about volunteering for the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative. The San Jose-based nonprofit provides free physical education and empowerment programs to girls from underserved communities and to children with disabilities.
“It’s really important to me and my whole family,” said Panaccione, a student ambassador for BAWSI (pronounced “bossy”). “I’ve been involved since eighth grade, but I’m more hands-on this year.”
Since the summer, the Los Altos Hills resident has been focused on the BAWSI Moves Virtual 5K, a charity run set for Oct. 24 and 25. Proceeds will benefit BAWSI Girls (an after-school fitness and confidence-building program for girls in grades 2-5) and BAWSI Rollers (a weekly adaptive fitness and confidence-building program for girls and boys with physical, hearing and cognitive disabilities).
“I want to make sure people know the importance of this charity and that the word gets out,” Panaccione said.
But spreading the word about the 5K hasn’t been easy – not with a pandemic going on.
“It’s harder with online school, because I can’t put up posters on campus and there’s the lack of a face-to-face connection,” she said. “It’s hard to show excitement over email.”
Along with sending out hundreds of emails, Panaccione is targeting teens via social media and has addressed many of her classmates over Zoom, thanks to teachers allowing her a minute to do so before the start of class.
“My teachers have been really helpful,” she said.
A few of them have even signed up to join her team in the virtual 5K – as has principal Katie Teekell.
“I have 10 on my team so far,” said Panaccione, who also recruited players on her club soccer team. “It’s already turned into a competition to get the most runners on your team. There’s a real competitive spirit.”
Jennifer Smith, co-CEO of BAWSI, has been impressed with Panaccione’s efforts.
“What she’s doing is amazing,” the Los Altos Hills resident said. “Bella is really getting St. Francis students involved.”
As of Oct. 6, BAWSI was halfway to its goals of registering 200 people and raising $20,000 for the organization.
“We need a giant push at the end to get there,” Smith said.
A three-time All-America soccer player during her time at Cornell University, Smith has recruited some of her old teammates to enter the 5K. They won’t be the only-out-of-state runners, she noted, and wouldn’t rule out the possibility of international participation.
The event isn’t just for runners, either.
“Run, walk or roll,” Smith said.
While the pandemic left BAWSI little choice but to make the inaugural event virtual, Smith indicated that it might remain that way next year.
“This is a great year to start slow and not have a big race with big crowds. But it may stay virtual, which is a great way to connect with friends from years ago,” she said. “It takes a lot more to do an actual race – there’s a cost to it – but we’re leaving the door open.”
In person or virtual, the intent of the event won’t change. Smith hopes it becomes a major fundraiser for BAWSI’s programs. The nonprofit serves elementary schools in Santa Clara County – and a few in Redwood City – where 70% or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“We have a really good footprint,” she said, “but there are more kids we’d like to help.”
BAWSI Girls – which Smith said was “created to address an issue that still exists locally and nationally today: inequities and lack of access to sports and physical activity that hits girls to a much greater extent than boys” – will expand to middle schools and high schools next year, starting in east San Jose.
It’s clear that the cause is close to Smith’s heart – and Panaccione’s.
BAWSI began in 2005, co-founded by U.S. women’s soccer team stars Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy – whom Panaccione called “my soccer idols” – along with sports executive Marlene Bjornsrud. Panaccione’s mom, Julie, is on the board of directors.
Registration for the 5K starts at $35. To register, visit tinyurl.com/y5se75mn.
For more information on BAWSI, visit bawsi.org.