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DIII Special Olympics Profile: Lauren Lessard

By Kaitlee Francisco

Lauren Lessard, sports and competitions director at Special Olympics Maine, is a perfect example of what can happen when people at a young age are connected and encouraged to celebrate difference, rather than fear it.

Lessard, who has a rich history with both NCAA Division III sports and Special Olympics, first became familiar with people with intellectual disabilities as a child because her mother was an elementary school special education teacher.

That experience grew at Lewiston High School in Maine, one of the nearly 7,700 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools across the United States. Lessard jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the Special Olympics Unified physical education class and enjoyed the genuine interaction with those with intellectual disabilities. She always looked forward to the 45-minute period each day she got to spend with her friends in Unified PE.

In college, Lessard majored in applied science (exercise physiology) and played on the Southern Maine women’s ice hockey and lacrosse teams. She also joined Southern Maine’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, eventually becoming president. Looking for practicum hours that pertained to her major, she came across a Special Olympics Maine internship within her county, an internship that combined her love of sports and her passion for supporting people with intellectual disabilities.

In her new intern role, Lessard found herself coordinating events and planning inclusive rallies. She also encouraged other members of SAAC to champion the Special Olympics cause, though, early on, it could be a bit of a struggle to get the college students to participate. “Not going to lie, in the beginning, sometimes it was just me and my advisor that would show up to an event,” Lessard recalls. 

Not to be deterred, she continued to educate her peers, coaches and staff at Southern Maine about inclusion and its power. Soon, many teams were signing up to teach a skills session on Sunday mornings at a training clinic for local Special Olympics athletes. The wrestling team even stepped up to teach the flag football skills session since Southern Maine does not have a football team. The clinics engaged the whole campus and became a weekly highlight for both Southern Maine and Special Olympics Maine. Lessard says she was always happy to see her two circles of friends come together as a group because of this Unified Sports program. She recalls the development of true friendships and a sense of mutual understanding and says she was grateful to be an athlete at the NCAA Division III level. There, she found support from coaches and time in her schedule to be both a two-sport athlete and involved in projects that gave back to her school and community.

Lessard went on to get her master’s in therapeutic recreation and sports management at Springfield College in Massachusetts, where Special Olympics again was able to play a role in her studies. In one of her event management classes, her semester-long project was dedicated to planning the qualifying volleyball tournament for Special Olympics Massachusetts. After seeing the success that Unified Sports had at Southern Maine in leading to social gatherings between student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes, she worked to plan social events at Springfield, as well.

Lessard turned her passions during school into a career path after graduating, landing a job in her home state with Special Olympics Maine. “Sometimes looking at where we are at the end of the day (with Special Olympics Maine), we are doing everything because we absolutely love it, and that I never lose,” she says. “I have always had the passion to work with people with intellectual disabilities. Seeing my family and the work that my mom has done, the journey I have been on, and now making it a career.”

Lessard says she stays connected with both of her former campuses and their programming and is always excited to see the new student leadership carrying on the Special Olympics events at Southern Maine and Springfield. Every day there are hundreds of NCAA Division III student-athletes who are experiencing inclusion through Special Olympics on their campuses, and some of those, much like Lessard, will make it their life’s work.