Special Olympics – An All-Inclusive Sports Complex in NJ

An experience shared. One which will stretch the borders and reach beyond, to enrich not only those directly involved but to have a lasting impact on the community. “I once played unified sports-baseball-with this guy. We turned seven double plays that year. I never saw it as: He was retarded and I was normal; he was shortstop and I was second baseman. That’s how we went through the season. It’s a whole different perspective now. I know he had better range; I know that he could turn two quicker than I could; I know we had great communication on the field. and I know Sean’s a great guy.” reflects Marc Edenzon, President of Special Olympics New Jersey.

Get your game face on. Special Olympics is teaming up with parents and the community to produce an all-inclusive Sports Complex in New Jersey for the personal growth of athletes with cognitive disabilities, and all those who feel they would benefit. “It affords our athletes the opportunity to meet the community and for the community to meet our athletes but with the initiative of inclusive or unified sports,” said Edenzon.

What’s the novelty? Special Olympics has no registration or membership fee. What’s the catch? There isn’t one-everything is covered by the organization, including insurance. Leave your glove at home, all equipment is provided at no cost to participants.

The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Special Olympics is founded on the belief that people with developmental disabilities can, with proper instruction and encouragement, learn, enjoy and benefit from participation in individual and team sports.

In furthering awareness and education, Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) is teaming up with parents and the community to produce a strategic all-inclusive Sports Complex designed to meet the needs of athletes, their families, coaches, volunteers and the community in a totally inclusive environment. Leaving no one behind, the opportunity to participate is available to everyone since there is no registration or membership fee to participate.

After September 11, without fully abandoning prior plans to build the complex, SONJ began looking into purchasing a smaller established property for the facility. They ended up with more than they bargained for-a fully furnished office complete with work stations, high speed network and phone system in Lawrenceville.

The new 34,000 square foot facility is slated to open January 2003. The complex, which boasts four major centers, outdoor facilities and two recognition areas will play host to 140 competitions a year with 23 sports to choose from. Currently 100 athletes are participating in sports at the facility, a figure that is continuously growing due to a major outreach program being facilitated in local schools.

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“The amazing thing is that our original campaign was to go for $4 million, raise a new building and open in 2004,” said Edenzon who recently gave ABILITY Magazine‘s Editor-in-Chief, Chet Cooper, a tour of the new Complex. “Long story short when we ended up going public with the campaign, we already had over $5 million committed in pledges or cash. This amount escalated to $10 million to totally endow and further extend the programs that would take place here. The contributions of corporate donors, individual gifts and fund-raisers come to $4.3 million every year in addition to another $1.2 million of in-kind donations annually. Law enforcement agencies alone have raised over $1.5 million for SONJ this year through special events and other fundraising campaigns.

The Complex will contain four primary facilities including The Walsh Family Sports Education & Family Center, Wawa Exercise & Wellness Center, the Sports & Recreation Center and the Law Enforcement for Special Olympics New Jersey Leadership Center. “It was never going to be a traditional place for persons with disabilities to solely come and participate in sports” Edenzon noted. He says that Special Olympics found it easy to make the program not only successful in schools, but also in recreation departments throughout the state. “It was going to be a place that would foster inclusion.” said Edenzon.

One plan for fostering inclusion is daytime and evening programs for locals who live in the area, allowing them to sign up to play volleyball at no cost. In addition, SONJ brings the YMCA to the events and asks participants to share their feelings about playing with a person with disabilities. He says the benefits are three-fold. First, a person has a recreational opportunity where they can play with no registration fee; second, it builds an awareness in the individual; and third, it gives SONJ the opportunity to come in and talk with the person to share their experience.

In opening its doors to the community, Edenzon said that SONJ is not restricting themselves to athletes that are so-called eligible for Special Olympics. Since there are athletes with physical limitations. Special Olympics has broadened its education to include those who believe they would benefit. “Our feeling is that if more people can benefit from beyond our sphere, then it would be fine. It should never be at the expense of our participants, but there’s no reason why these individuals can’t learn from some of the resources that we are able to provide,” Edenzon says. As long as Special Olympics can maintain free services, then an honest and needed service is being provided for families.

Special Olympics’ push for inclusion extends to the community as well. Coaches from throughout the state often visit the complex to get certified to coach children in their community. It is important to understand that SONJ is not just a resource for those with disabilities, but for sports and illness as well. “We want coaches in the community to understand this is a facility that teach es sports wellness,” said Edenzon. The facility will enable athletes from Special Olympics to be placed on the same team with people in the community, using sports as the transition to being accepted. “It affords our athletes the opportunity to meet the community and for the community to meet our athletes, but with the initiative of inclusive or unified sports,” said Edenzon.

“Now, Special Olympics New Jersey is looking to work with the greater Lawrenceville area to make after school programs inclusive,” said Edenzon, Special Olympics will work with the teachers to create model unified programs by which they can invite other school districts. It is a program that offers students and teammates the opportunity to meet and get a better sense of what it is all about. “Too many times we’re out pushing paper across tables for teachers that don’t need more paper or curriculum. We want to show the teachers how the concept works, then we’re going to go back to the school to help get it started,” said Edenzon.

During the process of inclusion, Special Olympics had conducted expansive research on moms that have children about three years old. The program was called Gymboree whereby children were put in inclusive preschool activities for the purpose of study. Special Olympics worked with 10 atypical children with a variety of limitations, and their parents, over a 17 week program. The results of the study illustrated that moms and dads of typical children became desensitized to children with disabilities. In addition, it helped moms of children with disabilities to build confidence to come out and interface with other parents. In turn, parents were creating new relationships. “As a result, we’ve actually had some of the parents join Gymboree on their own together,” said Edenzon,

SONJ plans to hold the model program in the gymnasium and invite Gymboree. Little Gyms and YMCA to instruct parents on proper inclusion techniques. SONJ will be subsidizing some of the programs in the community. The current federally mandated programs are restrictive and do not provide parents the opportunity to interact and build relationships with other parents who have kids with disabilities. “In addition,” Edenzon said. “it does not develop confidence unless the parent is assertive and really wants to help their child.”

One of the compliments the program has had so far came from the head of Gymboree who commented, “This looks like any other class.” The praise demonstrated parents had gotten a lot out of the program. “Right now, we’re going to facilitate the interaction,” said Edenzon.

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“One of the topics we have always drilled is the issue of inclusion; if a child or person has a disability and we make a decision that this person should be in the general community, what are we saying about the friends with disabilities that he made growing up?” said Edenzon. “Special Olympics respects the parent’s and the individual’s choice to team up with other Special Olympic athletes, be it in a unified or inclusive program or participating in a way that he or she wishes.”

Recently, SONJ implemented a community Bocce program as part of their inclusive program for seniors. The program appears to be netting great success.

Most parents of children with disabilities make it part of their daily agenda to search out new information on parenting, training, etc. “There are so many organizations out there that run conferences for families that have children with disabilities. Unfortunately, parents are paying $125 apiece for conference registration fees and $50 for a baby-sitter at home. At best, they will take home a few positive steps for their $300,” Edenzon comments. SONJ is in the process of finding sponsors to underwrite the cost of meetings and conferences, thus providing a host of services for free.

“There will be no cost to family members, no cost to the public, and no cost to athletes who attend the conferences,” said Edenzon referring to the Walsh Family Sports Education & Family Center. As long as they can maintain the provision of free services, Special Olympics is meeting an honest need of the families. The idea is that families’ funds should be allocated toward therapy, communication boards, or whatever needs the child may have. “This is a service we can provide that is fun, energetic, non-stressful and have it be something that would never cost a dime. It is advantageous for us to host these conferences because we can provide them with information on fitness, wellness and other sports areas we offer services in.”

Among the facilities available for athletes and their families is a library with books spanning topics from law to all levels of disabilities. From the inception, Special Olympics has been busy working with various book stores and publishers. Despite being in the beginning stages of establishing the library, their goal is to obtain between 3,000 and 5,000 titles. Furthermore, an area has been created for parents to conduct research and order discounted books. The facility is also equipped with a media center where informational tapes are centralized and accessible.

Indeed there is no camp like SONJ. With the grand opening just a short time away, people can already come in and get started. Training is under way and there are certified trainers available at designated hours during the week and throughout the year. The scheduling will be expanded so parents can come in and make SONJ their primary training place. Athletes will be able to work with a trainer each week, making the experience more inclusive. In addition, cheat sheets with instructional information are provided to athletes to take out into the community.

To further assist in their workout routine, SONJ was able to secure trainers from a New York sports club through HealthQuest. With the aid of professional trainers, athletes at SONJ are now bench pressing 400 lbs some with Down Syndrome are dead-lifting 500 lbs. “We have athletes here and throughout the county that are excelling because they are being provided the opportunities. In the past these expectations didn’t exist, so there was no reason to provide this type of specialized training. Now with high expectations in place, we’re starting to see the achievements,” said Edenzon.

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“Special Olympics New Jersey does not ascribe to modifying the rules in sports,” said Edenzon. “We don’t take a basketball hoop and lower it. What we do is try and teach other parts of the game. If we lower the hoop, what happens when they go out on Monday morning and see a real basket and are not able to shoot?” Athletes may choose how they want to participate, but they cannot change the rules. If a game is too challenging, there are still 22 other sports or events to choose from. We want to provide as much opportunity as possible for the athletes in a variety of sports. This way it enables them to develop their skills according to the rules, so they can take those skills into the community. They have to follow the rules because the rules are followed by our society,” he notes.

Through educating the community on their philosophies and programs, Edenzon believes that SONJ has gained the support from some of the organizations that may have been skeptical in the past toward a so-called “special” organization. Increasingly, organizations are realizing that Special Olympic’s philosophy has become expansive when it comes to the choices athletes are offered.

In supporting the future of the program, SONJ purchased a ball company that was going out of business. The purchase will allow the organization to provide its athletes with balls over the next 5 years. “Everyone that plays volleyball gets a volleyball. We have golf balls, 300 dozen softballs, leather basketballs, Adidas soccer balls… and this is only some of them. There’s a lot.” said Edenzon.

Among their supporters is Governor James McGreevey. Over the last two years the state of New Jersey has made two contributions of $500.000. “The Governor has expressed his support. He was unable to attend our opening, but presented what we’re doing to the Department of Community Affairs which has expressed enthusiasm toward the expansion of our services,” comments Edenzon. In addition, the Governor’s wife, Dina McGreevey, is also involved with the campaign. “I was very surprised because when we originally invited her to be an honorary board member for the campaign, not only did she accept the invitation, but also accepted a position on our acting board of directors.”

By all accounts, SONJ is making an effort to provide an unparalleled program to athletes and the community. Although the word special can be interpreted in many ways, Christopher Reeve defined it best to an audience of athletes with cognitive disabilities. “We, you and I. have a disability. A disability, whether it is cognitive or physical. Sometimes the word ‘special’ is looked at as being a negative term. What you have done in Special Olympics is used ‘special’ to define the essence of sport.”

What’s the real difference? A basketball official never turns down refereeing a game where he’s sure to be hugged and high-fived by the athletes who call him by first name. Walking onto the court one day, an official who was volunteering his time commented, “I’m so glad to be here. I had two games this morning. I had to give three people technical fouls and I had two fights… but I couldn’t wait to get here.” The joy of Special Olympics is that the participation is neutralized and there is virtually no emphasis on winning or other negatives often associated with sports such as aggressiveness of parents, developing athletes for the purpose of scholarships and competitiveness.

“It wasn’t so much a special child or a special education. The idea is that a very special experience is being provided to deserving individuals; the use of sports to neutralize any kind of cognitive limitation has been the strategy.” Edenzon concludes.

There is a place where athletes compete for the love of sport. This place is Special Olympics New Jersey.

by Micole Alfaro

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