Inclusion Revolution: Special Olympics of MS
by Hannah Saulters
Accessibility and visibility.
Those are the goals for Special Olympics of Mississippi’s recent relocation from a secluded building in Madison to their new office in Fondren Corner.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to move was to be centrally located in the capital city,” explains Sam Wells, SOM’s director of marketing and development. “There’s so much happening in Fondren and we want to be part of it all. It’s a game changer for our organization.”
Serving 4,500 athletes spread across 16 regions within the state with ages ranging from 8-84, Special Olympics of Mississippi provides opportunities for individuals with an intellectual disability to train and compete in olympic-style sports. Although a central location in Jackson is key for events like the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebration for Special Olympics or the twice-yearly state games at Keesler Air Force Base, Wells is the first to say that “everything happens at the local level. Practices, games, everything is run by volunteer leaders who are passionate about our athletes and the organization.”
The mission also supports ancillary projects showcasing people with intellectual disabilities and promoting inclusion through sports. According to Wells, “People would be shocked to know just how much goes on here; it’s not just sports.”
Programs like the Healthy Athletes Initiative are “changing the way health systems interact with people with intellectual disabilities” by working with medical providers to offer overall health screenings, hearing tests, eye exams, and dental checkups to athletes during the Summer and Fall games. Another project works with children at Little Lighthouse of Mississippi, developing their motor skills before they can become full-fledged athletes.
Perhaps even more important than the physical fitness and skills that go along with sports training is what Executive Director Monica Daniels calls the “inclusion revolution,” the organization’s goal of ensuring that this population is never discriminated against. She recalls a recent trip to Washington, D.C. with an athlete, Jason Smith, where they were meeting with a Mississippi congressman.
“We walk into Thad Cochran’s office and who is sitting there but Tim Shriver (the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics’ founder).” Having only been the director for a few months, Monica admits she was nervous to come face-to-face with such a big name in her field.
“I leaned over and asked Jason if he was nervous too,” she continues. “He said, ‘Yes, I’m nervous, but I’m going to tell everyone about the time I struck Bret Favre out at our Governor’s Cup baseball game!’ Jason did exactly that and from that moment on I knew beyond a shred of doubt that our athletes were amazing, articulate individuals. When given the opportunity they lead the way on the road to acceptance.”
Each facet of Special Olympics’ mission is an opportunity for volunteers to get involved. “If you have a passion for a particular sport,” says Wells, “We try to match you up with that sport and those athletes. If you’re at an event with these athletes, you’ll have a good time doing any and everything.”