All these activities are organized by a North Carolina staff of less than 30, with substantial help from an army of volunteers and partners throughout the state.
“Our staff provides the infrastructure training to teach volunteers how to carry out the Special Olympics program,” Fishburne explains. “We rely heavily on these volunteers to help us carry out our programming on a grassroots level. We partner with therapeutic recreation programs in parks and recreation departments, as well as with school special education programs throughout the state.”
The way Special Olympics is structured, local events and programs are there to engage everyone, no matter their skill level, to participate in sports. From those events, higher performers have the opportunity to move up the chain to first state, then national, then international Special Olympics competitions. Of the 40,000 athletes that participate in local events each year, between 4,000 and 5,000 progress to state competitions. Fewer still move on to the national or international games.
“Like in any sports organization, as you advance to higher levels of competition, fewer people get to go,” Fishburne says. “Our Special Olympics USA Games and International Games are held every four years, rather than annually, because they are so large and costly. So the real emphasis is at the grassroots level, where you can have thousands of athletes taking part in activities, even if it’s just to train or participate in a sport.”
Special Olympics has always been about touching the lives of people who are far too often overlooked and bringing inspiration, purpose and positive change through sports. It has enriched countless lives in its five decades of existence and its representatives are always looking for new ways to improve the lives of those Special Olympics reaches.
In recent years, Special Olympics has put a great deal of emphasis on a new health and wellness initiative. The organization seeks to use its contact with athletes to help a population of people that is often underserved in health care.
“There is a whole new commitment from Special Olympics to offer non-invasive health screenings for our athletes,” Fishburne explains. “We are able to do this with help from federal funding from Congress, as well as private funding.”
These non-invasive exams check things like vision, hearing and blood pressure. The idea had its start about 20 years on a small scale at international competitions and has gained momentum and expanded with an influx of funding that allowed Special Olympics organizations to recruit and train more medical professionals.
“In many cases, because our athletes are quite vulnerable and often don’t get the best medical care, we are able to identify things that can be dealt with or corrected,” Fishburne says. “For example, an athlete might have vision problems and we are able to have eyeglasses made for them. That will help them competing in sports, and it also means they will be able to see better in life. That will help them with reading, as well as with going out to get a job or living on their own. We want to offer services that help our athletes beyond the field of play.”
Special Olympics North Carolina has put resources and people into this effort, and its representatives believe they are just getting started. A grant has enabled the organization to hire its first full-time health director. The team has made great progress, but there is a long road ahead.
“We are very much in our infancy stages in terms of the number of athletes we are able to reach out to,” Fishburne says. “As in any state, it’s easy to carry out health and wellness programs in urban areas, but we also really need to get to rural North Carolina and do as much as we do in more populated markets in the state.”
Looking back on 50 years of Special Olympics, one can view its impact through two very different lenses. Through one, the organization has transformed society’s view and interaction with people with intellectual disabilities. As its founders intended, it has brought people into the light and given them an opportunity to engage with each other and society as a whole.
And through another lens, it is important to recognize the millions of individual lives that Special Olympics has impacted. From champions to local event athletes, Special Olympics has always been built on the stories of those who participate.
PHOTOS: courtesy of Special Olympics North Carolina