The weather might have been gloomy outside, but nothing could dampen the spirits of those who competed, coached, cheered and volunteered at the 44thSpecial Olympics State Summer Games last weekend at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.
Rain may have caused the postponement of the soccer and cycling events and forced the Olympic Village to be located inside Keaney Gymnasium, rather than the more spacious field behind the athletic buildings, but everyone made the best of the situation.
Throughout the weekend, 1,400 athletes from all over Rhode Island—including 28 from Newport—competed in the Summer Games. In addition, 500 coaches and 500 volunteers helped everything run smoothly.
“Our staff and game management folks do a great job,” said Dennis DeJesus, CEO of Special Olympics Rhode Island. “Each year we have more people who want to spend the weekend with us as volunteers and the teams look better and are better organized each year.”
Joining the Rhode Islanders in competition were teams from New York and Virginia.
“There’s an agreement between programs in Special Olympics to have an open door policy,” explained DeJesus. “When we hold our sailing event, we’ll get teams from all over New England because Rhode Island is the ideal location. By the same token, we have skiers who compete in New Hampshire because they have some great mountains.”
DeJesus was pleased with the turnout of 1,400 of the state’s 2,700 total Special Olympics athletes. However, an effort is underway to increase the number of people currently involved in the program. Special Olympics International has challenged each local organization to increase its participation by 25 percent over the next five years.
“The only way we’ll be able to achieve that goal is to get the City of Providence more involved,” stated DeJesus. “We need a commitment from the school department and the city. But there are obstacles that need to be overcome with regards to facilities, transportation and leadership, not to mention the challenges that traditionally come with trying to add programs in the inner-city.”
One program that has been embraced by many school departments in Rhode Island is unified sports. Over the last couple of years, several high schools have added unified basketball and/or volleyball teams, in which students with disabilities compete alongside their peers, known as partners.
“The unified sports have been a tremendous success story,” said DeJesus. “Two years ago, we had 10 basketball teams in the league. We now have 28 teams.”
DeJesus pointed out that the unified sports are entirely funded through a federal grant, adding no expense to the school departments.
“I couldn’t be happier that these kids get to compete for their schools, while wearing their school colors, just like all the other athletes,” said the director. “It’s all about inclusion, acceptance and respect for these athletes. It’s equally important to the partners who compete with them.”
Athletics are one way in which those with disabilities can gain a sense of pride and achievement, but it’s by no means the only way.
“Forty years ago we used to segregate those who had a disability,” recalled DeJesus. “Now they play in our community, they work in our community and they contribute to our community.”
Despite the downturn in the local economy in recent years, Special Olympics Rhode Island has only lost one sponsor in the three years DeJesus has been CEO, while adding five sponsors in 2012 alone.
“Everyone is aware of the difference Special Olympics makes in people’s lives,” said DeJesus. “Companies want to partner with an organization that has a track record of doing things the right way.”
Special Olympics also has a great partnership with city and state police officers, fire fighters and correction officers.
“They raise $200,000 a year at events all over the state,” said DeJesus. “We’re so proud to have them participate in our torch run and hand out the ribbons and medals at the podium. The athletes really look up to them.”
Judging by the huge smiles on the faces of the officers at Saturday’s event, the feeling is mutual.
Newport County YMCA athletes
Feighan, Sean "Patrick"