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Special Olympics a hit with Division III

By Gary Brown

Hope College women’s basketball coach Brian Morehouse is into numbers as a hoops guru, but he’s also into a different kind of math.

It’s called “the multiplier effect.”

That’s what he’s after every time one of his student-athletes participates in his school’s Special Olympics events.

“My goal is to put it in our players’ hearts that they will move on from Hope and serve others in whatever capacity that might be – whether it’s through Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity or a soup kitchen – that they would look for viable ways to serve others in their community,” he said.

If Morehouse is a multiplier, then Division III afforded the factor last year when it encouraged all members to adopt Special Olympics as their outreach of choice.

Now, just six months into the partnership, more than 4,000 student-athletes from about 50 schools representing more than 30 conferences have already raised almost $100,000 for the national nonprofit organization that provides year-round sports training and athletics competition in various Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Perhaps even more importantly, those student-athletes have interacted with about 8,000 Special Olympics athletes in meaningful ways that stick with both sides.

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

Concordia certainly has provided the chance for repeat customers. Since the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee – on which Whitlock serves – announced the partnership at the 2011 NCAA Convention, Concordia has conducted four events under its new outreach umbrella called “Athletes for Athletes.”

“At first, student-athletes buy in to support SAAC’s goal, but after they do one event, they do others just because they like it so much,” Whitlock said.

Morehouse has witnessed the same effect.

“The freshmen are often wide-eyed and scared to death because they don’t want to mess up. I tell them you can’t mess up – as much as they love you and want to be in this relationship, you just give it back in the form of a smile or a hug or encouragement,” he said.

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.

Hope is among the many Division III schools that has done that for years. Morehouse, who is in his 16th season leading the Flying Dutch, has his team host more than 100 Special Olympics athletes in a “skills and drills” clinic each year in which student-athletes design several “stations” and rotate the group so that team members get equal access to the Special Olympics participants.

The squad also helps conduct a basketball tournament for the Special Olympics athletes that has grown from an handful of teams to about 20 this year.

Morehouse is so enamored with the outreach that he has two Special Olympics athletes on his staff – both of whom volunteer at Hope practices and games.

His advice for schools on the fence about volunteering?

“Don’t wait to be approached – seek the opportunity,” he said. “We’re all busy. Many DIII coaches wear multiple hats, and there’s a million reasons not to do this. But if you do it one time, you’ll never stop, because you’ll realize that you’re getting back more than you give by tenfold. 

“For some reason, I’m jumping into Lake Macatawa on Feb. 18 (for a ‘polar plunge’ to benefit Special Olympics). I did that last year and said I’d never do it again, but I just can’t say no.”

Many other schools are saying “yes,” as well. About 350 Mary Washington student-athletes helped sponsor a “fun run” 5K this fall that earned praise from officials. “I was truly blown away by the support of the UMW athletes,” said Carrie Dyer, the director of development for Special Olympics Virginia. “I know our athletes felt extra special with all those fans cheering them on...Truly spectacular.”

Pittsburgh-Bradford, Minnesota-Morris and Concordia Texas are among several schools that held bowling events.

Schools in the Midwest Conference are using the partnership to build on their already long-standing tradition of Special Olympics involvement. Knox College and Monmouth College (Illinois), which are separated by just a few miles and have the fourth-oldest football rivalry in Division III, aren’t rivals when they provide hundreds of student-athlete volunteers at an annual Special Olympics track meet. 

Conference Commissioner Chris Graham said it has becomes the two schools’ biggest event to support each year, and the number of volunteers in the past has been overwhelming.

Graham called the Division III partnership with Special Olympics an initiative “that has legitimized even more so the efforts of our own student-athletes.” 

“You see the interaction all the time – the moment that student-athletes get to the site, the bond is instantaneous,” Graham said. “You don’t see that in any other activities that these student-athletes engage in. There are no strings attached – everyone checks their issues at the door.”

The SAACs at Hobart and William Smith hosted an event in which Tim Perry Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, delivered remarks and accepted the schools’ prestigious Blackwell Award on behalf of his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. The event kicked off a series of Special Olympics events the colleges will host throughout the year.

“Not only have SAACs nationwide enhanced campus engagement in local communities, but through this partnership, student-athletes have learned about the personal experiences of Special Olympics athletes and enjoyed many connections born from mutual love of sport,” said Division III SAAC chair and former Rowan track student-athlete Brittany Petrella.

In addition to campus and conference efforts, Special Olympics activities will be conducted at every Division III championship this year.

NCAA President Mark Emmert and wife DeLaine were in San Antonio in November to see 240 student-athletes from the eight participating men’s and women’s teams at the Division III soccer championships conduct a Special Olympics clinic. “Division III student-athletes are passionate about giving back to their communities,” Emmert said. “The partnership between Division III and Special Olympics will certainly prove to be a rewarding experience for all who participate.” 

About 80 Special Olympics athletes joined with the four competing teams at the field hockey championship to carry on activities that host Nichols College student-athletes had been facilitating all year, participating in events ranging from flag football to a field hockey skills session.

Special Olympics athletes handed out the championship awards at the Division III cross country championships at Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and volleyball championship host Washington University in St. Louis held a volleyball skills clinic and an autograph session. At the football championship in Salem, Va., Special Olympics athletes served as honorary team captains during the coin toss, and more than 100 participants were given tickets to the game.

Petrella said there’s more to come this winter and spring. She urged campus SAACs to share their stories and report activities on the Division III Special Olympics website. “This partnership provides the opportunity for student-athletes to demonstrate the Division III attributes of citizenship and comprehensive learning,” she said.

It also enhances Hope coach Morehouse’s “multiplier effect.”

“I hope to give them the tools so that when they leave here, they walk into that next community where they go to work or to grad school and they’re on the lookout for opportunities to serve,” he said. “If they’re doing those types of things, then I’ve done my job – regardless of what our on-court record has been – because they’ve graduated, they’ve gone on to grad school or have gotten a job, and they’re able to see a bigger world picture. That’s what I want my players to take away from this.”

DIII and Special Olympics share love of the game

Concordia University Texas soccer student-athlete and Division III SAAC member Dalaine Whitlock said she loves being involved with Special Olympics athletes because of their pure love of the game.

“They are the epitome of sportsmanship – they love the game for the game,” she said. “They are unaware of and uninhibited by all the politics of sport. It really gets you back to the core of sport and the heart of the game.”

Participating in Special Olympics activities may be routine to Whitlock, but she sees the same enlightenment from first-timers all the time. She talked about a soccer teammate who had “been kind of uncomfortable around disabled people.” But once she participated, Whitlock said it completely changed her. 

“The discomfort comes from it being unfamiliar territory for most student-athletes and because it’s something that isn’t talked about much,” she said. “Once you get to work one-on-one or play alongside a Special Olympics athlete, it really does change your view on disabled people in general. They are just as capable as anyone else to not only play their sport but to live successful lives. 

“Their love of the game overtakes them being self-conscious or anything like that. The Special Olympics athletes are obviously aware of their disabilities and are comfortable in their own skin, because the organization embraces that aspect for them.”

Special Olympics clinic

The Hope women's basketball team puts on a "skills and drills" clinic for Special Olympics athletes. Watch