Special Olympics teams in Columbus, including Columbus North and East high school’s unified track teams, are keeping their heads held high amid talk in Washington to eliminate all $17.6 million in funding for the national organization.
Federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stood before Congress earlier this week defending her budget proposal to remove the group’s funding as part of nearly $7 billion in budget cuts for the next year. The Special Olympics received $17.6 million from the U.S. Department of Education this year, about 10 percent of its overall revenue.
DeVos presented her budget to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education Thursday. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, chairs the Senate subcommittee and said he’s a “longtime supporter” of Special Olympics.
“Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program,” Blunt said. He added that Special Olympics funding has “directly impacted the lives of thousands of students both with and without intellectual disabilities. It also provides a model for other schools and districts to support this kind of work without direct federal funding.”
DeVos told Senators Thursday she was not “personally involved” in the decision to propose the cut in the Trump administration budget.
If the proposed budget is eventually passed with the cut, Special Olympics Indiana could see a $250,000 slash in federal funding, used for its Champions Together program, a partnership between Special Olympics Indiana and the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
Special Olympics Indiana currently reaches all 410 IHSAA member schools and a total of 610 schools at all levels, accounting for more than 10 percent of the 5,000 schools involved nationwide, according to the Special Olympics Indiana website.
“Special Olympics recognizes the progress that has been made around in the country in eliminating the stigma, stereotypes, isolation and discrimination that people with intellectual disabilities face — most importantly around access to sport, health and education opportunities and services,” Special Olympics Indiana CEO Jeff Mohler said in a statement Wednesday.
Mohler said the organization has not had time to create a contingency funding plan, but is hopeful that the budget request will be fully funded.
Champions Together is active at East and North high schools. Both schools have unified track and field teams where high school students with and without intellectual disabilities may represent their high school in an IHSAA-sanctioned activity.
The two Columbus high schools are also two of 88 banner schools in the state. To quality as a banner school, schools must meet four criteria.
All school-sponsored activities must be planned, organized and administered by an “inclusive student leadership” team that involves students with intellectual disabilities and the school must participate in at least one activity designed around “whole school engagement.” This activity should aim to promote and encourage awareness, respect and inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities. The school can also opt to hold a school-wide fundraiser for Special Olympics Indiana.
The school must also organize and participate in at least one unified sports activity and raise a minimum of $1,500 for Special Olympics Indiana.
Columbus North Athletic Director Jeff Hester said the funds raised provide grants for unified sports, sponsorship of the IHSAA unified track and field championships and funding for school assemblies, workshops and general support for other schools establishing their first Champions Together programs.
Special Olympics Indiana provides grant stipends to schools for each new IHSAA unified sport they offer. Hester said Columbus North received $3,000 in funding between 2014 and 2016 to offset the costs of starting its unified track program.
Peggy Myers is a life skills instructor at Columbus East where she also coaches the Olympians’ unified track and field team. She said unified sports are about more than competition.
“Unified sports allow all students to work together as a team to improve athletic skills with respect, dignity, and true equality,” Myers said. “Inclusion in athletics leads to expansion of social networks and friendship, and acceptance for both the athlete with an intellectual disability and the typical athlete.”
‘Time to shine’
Randy Allman, Columbus, said his 19-year-old grandson, Randall, is fast as lightning. When Randall participated on the Columbus North unified track and field team in high school, Allman said his grandson had an outlet for his energy.
“If you’ve never seen one of these meets, the first time you see one, you’ll understand,” Allman said. “It’s about the passion you see in the kids. It’s a time for them to shine. Without it, there’s no avenue for that.”
In an earlier interview, Randall’s mother, Celia Watts, said unified track was the best thing that ever happened to Randall.
The Watts family has since created another avenue for people with intellectual disabilities to exercise together — Sidekicks. Diane Doup, Randall Watts’ godmother, said it’s important for the community to have a solid foundation through Special Olympics and Sidekicks among others if cuts are required to be made.
“One of the things I’ve always thought was really nice is everyone cheers for each other,” Doup said. “I think that’s really valuable in a society right now that is very much divided on every issue. Special Olympics seems to bring people together and cheer for each other no matter what.”
“It’d be pretty hard to go to an event for the Special Olympics and not be in favor of everything that’s going on,” Allman said.
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"Special Olympics is a global movement of people creating a new world of inclusion and community, where every single person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability."
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As of today, Special Olympics Indiana reaches:
- Approximately 262,000 students at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels, representing 23 percent of all students in Indiana.
- All 410 IHSAA member schools and a total of 610 schools at all levels, meaning that Indiana accounts for more than 10 percent of the 5,000 plus schools that are involved nationwide.
Source: Special Olympics Indiana