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Why Special Olympics matters, in the athletes’ own words

Special Olympics athletes and parents explain why the organization means so much to them in the wake of its recent funding threat.

Renee Manfredi represented Hawaii at Special Olympics’ Capital Hill Day in February, when the organization had a chance to engage with senators and congresspeople. She is a Special Olympics veteran, having participated in basketball, softball, swimming, and soccer over the course of 11 years.

She is one of many athletes who say that they were shut out of opportunities to play sports before participating in Special Olympics, and that competing has led to significant personal development.

”Competing has made a huge difference in my life because now I have more confidence and I’m competing in sports that are designed specifically for people like me,” Manfredi says. “I’ve grown in ways I’ve never seen coming. Special Olympics is a wonderful opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities. Quite frankly I can’t imagine my life without it.”

That day on the Hill, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that she was “proud to stand beside you as a partner in support of Special Olympics.” About five weeks later, on March 26, DeVos proposed a budget for the Department of Education that included the elimination of $17.6 million in funding for Special Olympics, accounting for approximately 14 percent of the organization’s income.

DeVos proposed this particular cut the prior two years as well, and was rejected by Congress both times, but received more public backlash on her third attempt. The outcry led to Sen. Roy Blunt, the chairperson of the appropriations subcommittee who would have to approve DeVos’ proposal, issuing a public statement that Special Olympics would not be defunded. Two days later, President Donald Trump said a cut to funding for Special Olympics would not be part of his administration’s budget proposal.

Special Olympics reaches over five million athletes with intellectual disabilities around the world. But DeVos’ proposal suggests there are people in the White House and Department of Education who either don’t understand or don’t care about what Special Olympics does for people with intellectual disabilities and their communities. In speaking to the participating athletes and parents, it’s obvious how essential the organization is.

“Having different needs isn’t a disability, it’s a reason to get together and bond over a sport or another activity, and be a family,” Kyle Aragon, a golfer, says when asked how competing in Special Olympics has made a difference in his life.

Aragon says playing golf has helped him develop considerably as a person off the course. “From a young age when I first picked up a club, it didn’t really mean anything to me. But as I started learning lessons, it started opening up doors,” he says. “I started letting go of outside influences like frustration and stress, things that could be destructive.” Aragon believes those lessons have helped him as he’s started attending college to study graphic design.

Jordan Becker runs on her high school track team, while playing soccer and basketball with Special Olympics. Her mother Priscilla is a coach for the soccer team. She says it’s challenging for her daughter to play on traditional sports teams.

“The hardest part is the rules,” Priscilla says. “There’s specific guidelines, and everyone is expected to follow those guidelines. You have to be a square peg and fit in a square hole. If you don’t quite fit, it’s very difficult, and a lot of our kids don’t fit.”

But Priscilla says Jordan’s experience with Special Olympics is much different. “In Special Olympics she has her basketball team, and it’s something that she enjoys. She likes to go, she likes the practices, she feels comfortable,” she says.

“I love that the intentions from the coaches are to grow and develop athletes,” Priscilla adds. “They’re really out there to teach and develop these kids, but it’s in an environment where the kids are comfortable. And I think it gives her some pride that, when you ask the question, ‘what do you do?’, she can answer, ‘I’m a basketball player.’”

Special Olympics is also helping its veteran adult athletes learn public speaking skills and serve in ambassador roles through the Global Messenger program. Paul Hoffmann, who has participated in Special Olympics since 1986 and remains an active competitor at 61 years old, was the organization’s first Global Messenger from the state of California. Despite being from Orange County, Hoffmann has competed in snowshoeing, along with “basically everything under the sun,” as he puts it. He currently plays tennis, bowling, and bocce.

“I feel like I’ve been accepted in the community as a role model, trying to prove that people with intellectual disabilities can make a difference in this world if they give us a chance,” Hoffmann says. “I was put aside when I was going through school, they didn’t know how to treat people with intellectual disabilities.”

When asked what he thought was the biggest thing kids got out of Special Olympics, Hoffmann says, “that they feel like they’re included, in the social aspects of being accepted.

“That’s the key thing. Sports to me is very important, but it’s secondary compared to having that friendship or partnership, having that camaraderie.”

As someone who has watched Special Olympics grow, serving more and more people over his 30-plus years of involvement with the organization, Hoffmann says he feels a responsibility to the younger generations of people with intellectual disabilities, and believes he can make their lives better through his advocacy.

“I think that by being a role model that I am changing the world,” Hoffmann says. “I’m trying to make it better for the younger people who are coming along and will eventually take over from me.”

That’s not to say he’s going to give up competition anytime soon. “When I’m 98 I still want to be walking around the track or something like that, but I know I have to pass the torch,” he says.

Manfredi is one of Special Olympics’ current Global Messengers. She had numerous speaking engagements at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi in March.

“I started five years ago with the Global Messengers club,” she says. “The training was to teach us how to speak in public, which wasn’t always easy for me. There was a time when I would have been so scared I wouldn’t have been able to talk in front of even a small group without being afraid. But through the Global Messengers training I’ve overcome those barriers. I still get a little scared, but it helps to say a short prayer and take a deep breath.”

When asked how the Global Messengers has been rewarding for her, Manfredi says, “the best way to describe it is that it’s allowed me to grow in confidence.

“I’ve never been confident in myself, so with these opportunities, I’ve discovered growth and maturity in different ways. But I’ve also learned that my story can definitely make a huge impact on everyone who’s feeling like I used to feel — alone, isolated, maybe small. And those feelings can really shrink a person down to the point where they don’t feel like they can accomplish anything.”

Hoffman and Manfredi were both upset by the Department of Education’s budget proposal in March. Hoffman says he was “really hurt,” while Manfredi says she “was very shocked, scared, and sad.”

She asks, “If Special Olympics was taken away, what other organizations would be out there for people like me?

“It’s a really wonderful organization and a chance for the world to see us at our best. As competitors, as athletes, as people who have something to contribute to our community, and people who are determined.”