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Division III discovers kindred spirit in Special Olympics partnership

Division III is in its second year of making its partnership with Special Olympics special.

In the 12 months since the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee officially kicked off the community-outreach engagement, 39 Division III conferences and 101 institutions reported a Special Olympics activity that involved more than 6,800 student-athletes and 9,800 Special Olympics athletes.

The membership reported devoting more than 239,000 community-service hours to the initiative. In addition, more than $118,000 has been raised for local Special Olympics chapters.

The partnership also flourished at NCAA championships in 2011-12, as Special Olympics events were conducted at 22 Division III championships in 13 states, with more than 2,000 student-athletes and 800 Special Olympics athletes participating.

“And we’re just getting started,” said SAAC chair Wes Lambert, senior basketball student-athlete at Maryville (Tennessee). “So far we’re getting the kind of interaction and enthusiasm we were looking for when we selected a collective outreach on behalf of Division III. We think this coming year will be even better.”

The Division III SAAC picked Special Olympics as the division’s outreach of choice because of the interactive element that bonds participants beyond a simple fundraiser. While donations are accepted as part of the Division III/Special Olympics partnership, the hope is that schools will engage their Special Olympics communities. That has been effective so far.

“Once you are involved with one Special Olympics activity, you become addicted,” said SAAC member Dalaine Whitlock, a soccer student-athlete at Concordia University Texas. “You see the same athletes come back time and again.”

The partnership was announced at the 2011 NCAA Convention and officially launched Aug. 1, 2011. The SAAC identified Special Olympics in part because programs are offered in every state, and many institutions already had relationships with local chapters.

Among the many reported activities so far include clinics, hosting exhibition competitions for Special Olympics athletes, inviting Special Olympics athletes as special guests or honorary captains at games, adopting a Special Olympics team for a season and coordinating a bowling outing.

While fundraising is also an option, Whitlock encourages the interactive element as having a lasting effect.

“Once you get to work one-on-one or play alongside a Special Olympics athlete, it really does change your view on people with disabilities,” she said. “They are just as capable as anyone else to not only play their sport but to live successful lives.” 

Special Olympics is a global, nonprofit organization that provides year-round sports training and athletics competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. That interaction and physical activity gives participants the chance to develop fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and share those skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and community members.

The Division III SAAC began exploring a national community-outreach initiative during its meetings in November 2008 and January 2009. SAAC members sought input from institutional and conference SAACs before making a recommendation. The Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee established a similar national arrangement with Make-A-Wish in 2004. In addition, the Division I SAAC has a relationship with Samaritan’s Feet.

Several Division III schools and conferences have already been busy hosting Special Olympics activities this year. The American Southwest Conference SAAC held its annual meeting Sept. 24 and among other agenda items heard from a Special Olympics Texas representative on how schools can be more involved.

The group also heard from 2012 Special Olympics Texas Female Athlete of the Year Leanne Owens, who gave a touching speech on what the partnership has meant to her.

Whitlock, who attended that meeting as the conference’s liaison to the national SAAC, said it was a learning experience for everyone there.

“There are so many ways to get involved, and it really does make a huge impact on both the student-athlete and the Special Olympics athlete when they are involved in this unique partnership,” she said. “It’s something that both groups can greatly benefit from, and it was great to hear more about all of the opportunities institutions have to cultivate this new relationship and tradition.”

Also, with the start of the second year of the partnership, the NCAA national office is implementing new ways to share how campuses and conferences are engaging with Special Olympics. For example, the NCAA Division III Special Olympics Spotlight Poll is a new story-telling initiative located on ncaa.org/D3SpecialOlympics. It features three new stories per month – each highlighting a Division III and Special Olympics joint activity or event.

The story with the highest number of votes on the 25th day of each month is the winner. That institution or conference will be given $500 to use for its next Special Olympics event. Featured stories are selected based on inclusion of the student-athlete perspective and Division III messaging. 

The Division III SAAC also is presenting at the International Law Enforcement Torch Run Conference in November to promote the partnership. In addition, members are collaborating with Special Olympics Texas to plan an event with Special Olympics athletes at the upcoming NCAA Convention in Grapevine, Texas. Individuals interested in participating may sign up for the event as part of their Convention registration.