Competition and training are at the core of Special Olympics. It’s through sports that our athletes realize their potential and become champions. At Special Olympics Florida, we now serve 30,000 athletes statewide, a record only possible thanks to the families, volunteers and donors whose shared belief in revealing champions makes our movement possible. As we celebrate 2015, I want to personally thank everyone who has dedicated their talents to helping our grassroots movement grow.
Sports Competition and Training
Because of that determination and generosity, over the past twelve months our athletes have experienced new competitive opportunities and new sports venues. Examples include hosting our annual state basketball competition at The Big House in Tavares and stand-up paddle competition at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, providing athletes the opportunity to compete in world-class venues shared by other elite athletes and teams. Behind each event is a legion of 2,360 dedicated coaches who volunteer their time and ensure our athletes experience acceptance, teamwork and confidence both on and off the field. Throughout 2015, I’m excited to share that we had a record 1,522 coaches attend 22 sports trainings across the state – now even more athletes will be able to unleash their inner champion. Thanks to support from our partners at All Out Championships, not only did we train 71 new cheerleading coaches but we were able to host 300 cheer athletes at Fall Classic this November. With record attendance of 2,864 registered athletes, volunteers, and coaches at Fall Classic, the 30 flag football teams had lots of fans cheering for them as they played for the gold. We hope you enjoy the video recap of this record-breaking weekend below.
As we all strive to elevate the profile of athletes with intellectual disabilities in Florida, our hard work was rewarded last summer when 16 Florida athletes were chosen to represent the USA at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. Each of our 16 athletes brought home a gold, but more important is that each shared their talents with the world. ESPN viewers tuned in to watch as our athletes achieved their personal best and shared moments of celebration throughout the competition. The ESPN broadcast was seen by over 20.16 million people in the US and by another 1.8 million online, as ESPN’s website also helped to amplify the games through digital and social media. To those fans who tuned in to cheer, thank you!
Youth, Education and Early Childhood Development
As the Special Olympics movement grows across Florida we’ve received an outpouring of support from not only our families, but also schools and universities. To date, there are 6,499 Young Athletes in Florida having fun with their families and friends while also improving their physical, social and cognitive development through sports. Earlier this year, our youngest athletes received new curriculum elements related to balance with the introduction of Strider Balance Bikes to more programs in Florida.
Thanks to our dedicated educators and students, we’ve activated a record 2,571 Unified Partners in 25 of Florida’s counties. This incredible win for inclusion means that Special Olympics Florida’s Project UNIFY can be found in 90 schools and on 8 college campuses in Florida, including the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida, University of South Florida, Stetson, Florida International University, University of Miami and Florida Keys Community College. Because of your enthusiasm for unified sports, a partnership with Florida High School Athletic Association further expanded opportunities for competition for all athletes.
While sports is at our core, Special Olympics Florida continues to fight for equitable access to health services for people with intellectual disabilities by providing free health screenings and referrals. Thanks to the dedication of 1,672 healthcare volunteers Special Olympics Florida will close 2015 providing a record number of screenings. In total, there were 8,471 health screenings completed by volunteers during 2015 for athletes and clients on the APD waitlist. Adding to this amazing work was the addition of Sun Safety, a health discipline that focuses on education and prevention. This athlete-led initiative was present at almost every state-level competition, distributing sun screen and ensuring no one got burned. Our impact extended even further with the addition of our second Healthy Community site in the Tampa Bay Area which opened in January. This newest site complements our existing site in South Florida, broadening our reach as we collaborate with health care organizations and schools like University of South Florida to address the unmet health needs of our athletes.
Athletes as Leaders
Throughout 2015, our athletes were empowered to take on new roles in Special Olympics and within their communities. Two athletes traveled to Capitol Hill Day in Washington, D.C. where they met with 12 congressional leaders to discuss Special Olympics’ important, life-changing work in health, education, sports and community building. Volunteers, coaches and parents from throughout the state participated in training to become mentors to our newest classes of Athlete Leaders and Global Messengers.
Essential to this unprecedented growth are Special Olympics Florida’s donors and sponsors. As we’ve worked to meet the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, our donors and sponsors have supported our movement at every step. We started the year by hosting the chilliest and most successful Polar Plunge, raising $297,000 for Special Olympics Florida athletes and programs. Thanks to the unrelenting support of the law enforcement community our Law Enforcement Torch Run was once again ranked as one of the top three programs in the world, raising funds and awareness for Special Olympics in communities across the state. Fans came together in the fall for Giving Day, where over the course of 24 hours more than 600 fans made donations, triggering an additional gift of $50,000 from Procter & Gamble. Finally, we gathered to honor our premier sponsor, Publix, with the inaugural Eunice Kennedy Shriver award for their legacy of support that has sustained our program over the last 40 years and helped pioneer many of our current programs. Their support continues into 2016 with the Publix Torch Icon Campaign beginning on January 2 in Publix stores across Florida.
A champion, by definition, is not only someone who succeeds in competition, but someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief or cause. At Special Olympics Florida we believe in revealing all champions, whether it’s an athlete who has won her first gold, a cheering fan, or supporters who advocate for others. As we move into 2016, we are excited to work together to not only ensure incredible competition but also foster communities where everyone has the lifelong opportunity to develop physically, socially, and emotionally through sports, wellness and leadership training. Thank you for being our champion.
Happy holidays and best wishes for the New Year.