Since Division III officially partnered with the Special Olympics in August 2011, schools and conferences have held hundreds of events where student-athletes and Special Olympians meet, compete and, almost always, use laughter to build a bridge between their disparate worlds.
Often, campus student-athlete advisory committees lead the charge planning events. But what makes an event successful? And, ultimately, are they worth the time and energy spent planning them? Ask Division III administrators and student-athletes and, without fail, they answer in the affirmative.
“I walk away feeling like I made a difference,” Aaron Falsetto, a recent Earlham College graduate and former president of the school’s student-athlete advisory committee, says of the college’s annual track meet with Special Olympians.
Like Earlham’s competition, many events are built around athletics, but some schools have taken a different approach. Last March, the Mount Mary University SAAC organized a dance that drew about 150 attendees, half of whom were Special Olympians and their families. For Kelsey Peterson, Mount Mary women’s volleyball coach and SAAC adviser, what was most surprising was not the reaction of the Special Olympians in attendance, but of their parents. Raising a special-needs child can be rigorous, and Peterson was heartened to see parents dancing and mingling rather than being confined to the sidelines. “They loved the chance to let loose and enjoy themselves,” she said.
Planning the dance took nearly five months and entailed coordinating with Special Olympics Wisconsin to advertise at local athletic events and to send invitations directly to Special Olympians. To ensure other Mount Mary students got involved, SAAC members reached out to myriad organizations on campus, asking for additional funding and volunteers. Donations were accepted, but the event was free, which Peterson thinks helped boost attendance.
Schools often invite Special Olympians to campus, but conferences have gotten involved, too. Many will hold SAAC meetings in conjunction with Special Olympics activities. In September, Capital Athletic Conference SAAC members spent a few hours bowling with local Special Olympians in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “It’s really important because it lets other people know what the student-athlete advisory committee is about,” says Kayla Porter, a Frostburg State University student-athlete and conference SAAC member. “Most people aren’t aware of what we do. It bridges a gap between the communities.”
Some schools have found the initial planning required to host an event can lay the foundation for years to come. Haverford College women’s soccer coach Jamie Schneck and her team first hosted a soccer clinic for Special Olympians in 2013. In the years since, they have refined their approach, learning what works – an engaging warm-up session with the school’s strength coach or having student-athletes lead groups of Special Olympians through drills instead of coaches, for instance – and what doesn’t. Schneck has made the event an annual tradition because of the lasting rewards.
“There’s a bigger picture than just winning and losing in collegiate sports,” she says. “I believe if at least one of our players had a positive impact on one of the participants, then it made it all worth it.”