January 15, 2017
On your mark, get set, change lives! In the spirit of MRA Associates’ recently launched fitness initiatives, we found it the ideal time to focus some attention on an organization that enhances lives, encompasses health and fitness, and much more: Special Olympics Arizona (SOAZ). Throughout the year, SOAZ provides acceptance, happiness, community support, and empowerment to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Somewhat humorous to SOAZ employees, a question frequently asked by individuals new to the program, is “When is the Special Olympics?”, says Isaac Sanft, Senior Director of Support Programs at SOAZ. However, the primary focus is on inclusion year-round through athlete leadership, health programs, sports, and competitions.
Special Olympics, which originally started in Chicago in 1968 as a small summer camp, has since stemmed out across the globe helping over four million individuals with intellectual disabilities. These individuals have the opportunity to participate in regional and state competitions with various sports and educational objectives.
Volunteers & Involvement
SOAZ would not exist without the time, energy, commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers. There are many ways one can help, including partnering with an athlete, becoming a mentor, and volunteering as a coach. Volunteers can choose from varying levels of involvement ranging from a mid-field, soccer game score keeper to a season-long coach of a sports team. To ensure the positive experience and safety of athletes, coaches must be certified in the sport they are coaching. Furthermore, to enhance coaching education, SOAZ offers multiple coaches’ training sessions throughout the year.
Volunteers as well as the athletes benefit from participating in the activities. Developing lifelong friendships, understanding and gaining a deeper respect for individuals with disabilities, and supporting the community are just a few of the personal benefits when volunteering.
Individuals eager to support but with little time to volunteer can financially contribute to the organization. One way to financially support SOAZ is to sponsor vents such as Over the Edge described below. For Over the Edge the organization set a minimum fundraising goal of one thousand dollars, which is the cost of sponsorship for two athletes for an entire year! Donations and financial sponsorships are a crucial ingredient to the organization’s success and overall athlete experience.
The Unified Strategies for Schools® Model
The Unified Strategies for Schools® model supports an inclusive environment for fitness, mental and physical health, and youth leadership. This model creates integrated school sports teams including students with and without intellectual disabilities that are traditionally segregated. A long-term SOAZ goal is for schools to have a unified team alongside the standard freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams. The unified model seeks to provide the same social experience and typical athletic competitive atmosphere to individuals with intellectual disabilities, benefiting not only the Special Olympic athletes but also to their accompanying partners and event audience. “The success of our efforts is already obvious,” Sanft states. “All young people are agents of change; fostering respect, dignity and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities”. The organization works with a broad spectrum of athletes, ranging from two-year-olds to adult participants. Different programs are offered for different age groups. SOAZ is proud of the fact that the average age of the participant in past years was late 40s to early 50s, and now the average age is early to mid-30s with over 6000 athletes between the ages of two and seven years old.
Partnership and Health Programs
SOAZ is in partnership with over 200 schools across Arizona promoting the leadership movement and unified model. Another program resulting from the organization’s partnership efforts is the Healthy Athlete program, which is aimed at improving access to health care for SOAZ athletes. Through the Healthy Athletes program, athletes receive free screenings and referrals to doctors and other health professionals when appropriate. In 2016 alone, SOAZ performed more than 200,000 screenings as a preventative health care measure for their athletes. Another goal of the program is to teach health care professionals and students about the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, and advocate for improved health policies and programs for them.
Healthy LEAP, which stands for Lifestyle, Education, and Practice is unique to SOAZ. Sanft describes Healthy LEAP as “a series of mini health lessons, 10-15 minutes each, on nutrition, fitness, hygiene, and safety, delivered by coaches/teachers as part of weekly sports practices”. This permits all athletes and volunteers the opportunity to learn healthy life style lessons and improve mental fitness.
SOAZ sports programming was the spearhead for social change and development of various other fitness, wellness, and educational programs offered today. SOAZ offers training and competing opportunities in more than 20 sports for adults and children eight years and older who have intellectual disabilities. Sports opportunities include the traditional baseball, soccer, softball, flag football sports we all know well. A few of the unique sports offered are alpine skiing, aquatics, bocce, bowling, equestrian, figure skating, snowboarding, snowshoeing and more. This past December at the Over the Edge fundraiser, athletes with unparalleled courage rappelled down a 27-story Phoenix skyscraper, proving there is no adversity these individuals cannot overcome. With more than 180 delegations across the state, there is no shortage of activities in which athletes can participate.
Law Enforcement Torch Run
SOAZ is forever grateful for the incredible partnership with Law Enforcement Officers that participate in the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR). Coordinators with local police departments organize support and community involvement opportunities with enthusiastic officers willing to donate their time. At a single event, one can witness 50 to 60 law enforcement officers engaged in activities with athletes. The officers are the guardians of the flame of hope and carry it alongside athletes during the ceremonial torch run. Their common goal is to raise awareness for and funds to support Special Olympics worldwide. It is inspiring to see these officers, who already do so much for the community, also share their time with the athletes in support of such a great cause. Chief Officer Chris Kriebel explains his experience as, “I got involved so that I could help the athletes, but as it turns out they made me a better person”.
SOAZ is a fitness trailblazer for the Special Olympics organization and an overall health organization, specifically in the past five years, reaching over 22,000 participants. MRA is proud to be in partnership with Special Olympics Arizona. #playunified