Special Olympics Gets $12 Million to Expand Health Programs

Takepart.com

The Special Olympics just got a lot more special. The organization that hosts sports events for people with intellectual disabilities received a $12 million donation that will be used to expand health services to its athletes.

The donation, the largest single gift the organization has received from an individual, was announced by former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City last weekend. Funds will be doled out over four years, and will allow the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit to grow its Healthy Athletes program that provides free health clinics at Special Olympics sporting events. The donation came from Tom Golisano, chairman of Paychex, Inc.

Instead of just treating athletes on site, the new Healthy Communities program will make health and wellness services more available to athletes and their families.

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Many people know about the events the Special Olympics sponsors for athletes with intellectual disabilities, but many don’t know that the organization has been working with local partners to offer health screenings and referrals for vision, hearing and foot care at event sites for the last 15 years.

“Ironically, the Special Olympics is one of the most recognized brands in the country, but what we do with health has not traditionally been noticed,” Darcie Mersereau, the organization’s vice president of health programs told TakePart.  Through the donation, she added, “We’ll attempt to raise the visibility of the health needs of this population that are unmet.”

Some families in the U.S. and abroad hide their children with disabilities, so the care they receive is minimal. “Generally speaking,” Mersereau adds, “people tend to think that people with intellectual disabilities have better access to health care, but that’s not always true.”

The money will help launch the Healthy Communities program in seven countries, including Mexico, Peru, Malawi and Thailand, as well as in six U.S. States. The program aims to add more community partners and incorporate technology, such as sending text message reminders about clinics.

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In the U.S. the money may translate into providing more dental services or sports training from local volunteers, and in developing countries it could mean teaming up with soccer clubs or treating athletes for diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis.

And while services are targeted to Special Olympic athletes, Mersereau says the group does recruitment so people can have have access to healthcare. Volunteers who are specially trained to treat this population take their new knowledge and skills back to their practices, better equipped to treat those with intellectual disabilities.

“To have harnessed the power of its global sports organization to deliver critical front-line healthcare to over one million athletes is nothing short of remarkable,” Golisano said in a news release. “We must do even more to eliminate the health disparities that people with intellectual disabilities face.”

Has this inspired you to volunteer at a Special Olympics event? Let us know in the comments.

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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine | TakePart.com