With more than 21 million residents, the state of Florida is the third most populous in the nation. It’s also one of the most diverse states, with large proportions of indigenous people, Asian, Black, Hispanic and European residents.
Special Olympics Florida is making sure that inclusion and opportunities extend to another group of Floridians – a group that spans all ethnic groups – those with intellectual disabilities. Those efforts continued through the past year’s coronavirus pandemic, when Special Olympics Florida launched a health and wellness program that reached participants virtually.
Special Olympics Florida serves close to 60,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities, who are given the opportunity to play and compete in various sports, from baseball, basketball, swimming and flag football to bocce, bowling, skiing, speed skating and even surfing.
Because participants have special needs, Special Olympics works hard to provide plentiful coaches and others who teach, cheer and support the athletes to ensure their success.
That’s where dedicated volunteers make all the difference.
Nancy and Michael Howard, who live in Palm Beach County, have volunteered their time as Special Olympics coaches for 12 years, and they don’t plan to stop anytime soon. Unlike many coaches, the Howards are not the parents of a Special Olympics athlete. Nancy is a special education teacher at a school that decided to create a Special Olympics team. “Team Howard” participates in bowling, basketball, track, surfing, softball and has started open-water swimming.
Michael, a recently retired inspector for Palm Beach County, has been volunteering alongside his wife.
“If you spend about 15 minutes with these kids, you’re hooked, and that’s what happened to me,” says Michael. “It’s a lot of work, but when you see these kids’ faces, it’s worth it.”
The work is considerable. The Howards arrange and run all practices. If athletes don’t have a ride, they pick them up and take them home afterward. If they lack the proper clothing or equipment, the couple finds a way to provide them. The Howards also strive to schedule extra time for the athletes to socialize with one another, as well as time for their parents to socialize.
The couple even travels, at their own expense, to out-of-town regional, state and even national competitions, a gesture that means everything to athletes whose own parents cannot attend.
Nancy agrees that the volunteer work is gratifying. “Maybe an athlete couldn’t dribble last year, but this year, they can dribble and maybe even make a basket or two. It’s not about the sport in most cases; it’s about the relationships they build with one another,” she said. “It also gives the parents some respite – they know their children are taken care of by us.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic added even more tasks, such as taking temperatures and extra measures to ensure social distancing at both indoor and outdoor activities, the Howards took it in stride.
“We can’t imagine not doing this,” said Nancy, “People talk about moving away when they retire – we can’t. If we left, these kids would lose out on their Special Olympics team, because I don’t know who would step up to take our place.”
Logan Alvarez, on the other hand, is a volunteer at the very beginning of his adult life and career.
Logan is just 18, but he’s been volunteering with Special Olympics Florida in Miami-Dade County since he was only 7.
“My mom is a teacher and she coached a Special Olympics team,” says Logan. “I would attend state games and local games and I would hand out lunches and help in any way I could. When I got to high school, I trained as a Unified Special Olympics team, where athletes with and without disabilities play on teams together. Logan also helped host basketball and softball skills training events for Special Olympics participants.
“I believe that the world needs a lot more inclusion,” says Logan, who is now a freshman at Florida International University, studying political science and pre-law. “I want to become an ambassador for Special Olympics.”
Logan, who is not disabled, and in fact was a stand-out high school football player and class president, is highly aware of how difficult acceptance can be for those who with special needs. It’s what makes him passionate about what he calls the “race for inclusion.”
“Just seeing how happy the (Special Olympics) athletes get and seeing them being included is worth everything to me,” says Logan. “In society, you see how left out they are.”
COVID-19 prompts new programs
Special Olympics Florida stepped up throughout the state after the COVID-19 pandemic forced in-person sports programs to be temporarily suspended by hosting multiple virtual programs that encouraged athletes to remain healthy and fit.
At least eight separate programs succeeded in conducting more than 4,900 virtual screenings across all Healthy Athletes disciplines, according to Jim Stratton, communications director for Special Olympics Florida.
For example, a series of videos called “Fit 5 Like a Pro” features both Special Olympics and professional athletes, who encourage viewers to exercise five times per week, eat five fruits and vegetables daily, and drink five glasses of water a day.
“We piloted a virtual screening program for Special Olympics International, using Zoom to connect athletes with medical professionals who answered questions and discussed any health concerns the athlete had,” said Stratton. “We used social media and Zoom to conduct weekly emotional wellness sessions, organize fitness challenges, offer nutrition tips, share healthy recipes, and play games. The sessions provided valuable information but, just as importantly, helped our athletes and their families feel connected during a time when many were limiting their social contacts.”