Kingston – The weather might have been gloomy outside, but nothing could dampen the spirits of those who competed, coached, cheered and volunteered at the 44th Special Olympics State Summer Games last Saturday 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.
Woonsocket was well-represented at the Games. At Saturday’s track and field events, the Woonsocket Wildcats and the Woonsocket Wolverines had a combined 48 athletes win 67 awards.
One of the athletes, 13-year-old Eric Prince, was so excited about the Summer Games that he couldn’t sleep the night before.
“Eric woke up at five in the morning in anticipation, and he’s not normally a morning person,” said his mother, Christine Garneau.
In his second year of competing, Prince trained every weekend for eight weeks. The hard work paid off, as he won a bronze in the 100-meter dash and a bronze in the softball throw.
Brittany Swihart made her debut this year at the Summer Games. While she also won a pair of bronze medals, in the 50-meter dash and the softball throw for 12- to 15-year-old females, it was the social experience that proved invaluable.
“Brittany stayed in the URI dorms over the weekend, which was her first time away from mom,” said the athlete’s mother, Lisa. “Being around other kids and having the opportunity to compete has really helped her self-esteem.”
Throughout the weekend, 1,400 of the state’s 2,700 Special Olympics athletes 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.”
DeJesus was pleased with the turnout, but an effort is underway to increase the number of athletes 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.”