USM relationship with Special Olympics Maine holds strong following budget uncertainty

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Photo courtesy of @USMSAAC Twitter

By Cullen McIntyre, Sports Editor

Following the proposal by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to eliminate the funding for the Special Olympics in the 2020 federal education budget, there was an outcry across the nation for the funding to be upheld. The Special Olympics is an important event not only to those who compete, but those who volunteer and get involved with the events hosted.
More locally, USM is extremely involved with the Special Olympics program in Maine.

Through the University’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC), advised by Women’s Basketball head coach Samantha Allen, there are various events hosted on campus.
“Most recently we had the Special Olympics Maine Basketball Tournament that happens here, there are unified games that happen here between local high schools that each partner with Special Olympics programs throughout the year and compete at this tournament,” Allen said. “It’s a double elimination tournament that runs all day and then there are also individual skill events like dribbling, shooting, or passing competitions.” Coaching clinics for those interested in coaching Special Olympics teams are also held on campus.

SAAC also hosts their own events throughout the year. “We’ve done our own version of the unified sports program, it’s not exactly like the one done by high schools, it’s usually an eight week program where we meet once a week and do a bunch of skills and drills on a Sunday as well as playing games,” she said. It differs from high school where they only do one sport the entire time, the SAAC does several. They’ve done kickball, wiffleball, floor hockey, soccer, volleyball and more.

Events held throughout the year include volunteering by student athletes, and it has left a great impact on those involved. “They love it. I think one of the best things of the reciprocal nature of our partnership with Special Olympics Maine is the fact that sport is this completely even playing field where you see an inner kid in both sides. For our student athletes it’s really fun to see them recognize and witness the commonalities between the two groups. Both are extremely competitive and like to joke with each other, everyone really enjoys moving and using sport as a way to connect with somebody.”

The Special Olympics is an event that is close to everyone’s heart who has been involved, including for local high school English teacher Caryn Lasante-Ford of Thornton Academy, whose daughter participates at the Special Olympics.

To her, it’s more than just an event.“When I was in high school I volunteered at the Special Olympics, I did the outdoor track events and just seeing the participants then was life changing for me,” Lasante-Ford said, “and now having a child who does participate in these events, every spring we go to Bonny Eagle for the Cumberland Country outdoor event and there are hundreds of participants and student volunteers. It’s just the most supportive and positive atmosphere, with all of these fans and athletes making the kids feel like a typical kid or a typical athlete.”

Special Olympics events are held statewide through high schools unified sports and the Special Olympics Maine program.

The Olympics also give the families of the athletes an experience they did not think they could have. “As an athlete and a coach I always thought ‘of course I’m going to have my daughter play basketball and she’s going to be born with a ball in her hand,’ but life happened and that’s not the case, so to see that I can still cheer for her on the side of the pool or walking around a lap on the track it brings so much joy, and I would hate to see them tap away at the weakest population by taking away the one thing that makes them strong,” Lasante-Ford said.

This is not the first time that Special Olympics funding has been on the list of things being cut from the budget, but it has never made it through Congress.
It was announced by President Trump on March 28 that the funding for the Special Olympics would continue so those involved can continue to participate in unified sports and Special Olympics events across the country.

For USM, there will continue to be many events held on campus. “We are currently working with Special Olympics Maine to do something with bocce ball as it gets warmer,” Allen said. “We would love to try a ‘spread the word to end the word’ event in the spring, as we have really only done it with basketball, but we are yet to set a date.”

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