This is a guest post from Sherry Wheelock, Special Olympics Florida President and CEO.
As we near the end of 2014, it is with great enthusiasm that I share my gratitude for your achievements in our community. Our entire team, including athletes, coaches, volunteers, mentors, staff, law enforcement, sponsors and Unified Partners, has created a culture of sharing that has strengthened our movement. We have shared best practices for quality in our training and competitions, we have shared our program with thousands of new athletes and volunteers, we have discovered supporters who share in our mission, and as a result we participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship that defines the mission of Special Olympics.
Throughout 2014, our athletes inspired us all with record achievements not only in Florida, but also with a first class performance at the USA Games in New Jersey. Several new Athlete Input Councils were started throughout the state and the number of Athlete Leaders increased by 28%. These achievements, combined with several firsts for our athletes, is an outstanding example of the impact our athletes make as they share their abilities with the world: Johnathan Doring is the first Florida athlete to become a certified USTA tennis official and officiate Special Olympic 2015 World Games; William Corsi was selected to participate in the Final Leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run at the 2015 World Games; and John Fitton is the first Florida athlete elected to be part of a global committee that provides insight to Special Olympic International on their strategic planning.
Across the state, our County leadership has added 59 sport offerings for athletes. Striving to improve the quality of training and competition venues and provide premier experiences for our athletes, in 2014 Florida added two Stand-Up-Paddle Invitationals to the competition roster and is excited to host these events again in 2015. An emphasis on improving training and competition also focused on coach recruitment, resulting in an additional 162 coaches (10% growth) joining Special Olympics Florida. Our coaches will continue to serve as the backbone of quality training throughout 2015.
Our entry program, Young Athletes, has once again expanded their reach – serving an additional 1,500 athletes in 2014. Florida’s Young Athletes Program was proudly selected as a pilot site for Strider Bikes, resulting in a new curriculum for 2015 that uses bikes to promote balance and coordination skills. It is also important to recognize counties who have reignited their Motor Activity Training Programs (MATP) – sharing the joy of Special Olympics with those that have severe and profound challenges. MATP is now 207 athletes strong and will continue to be a focus in 2015 for Special Olympics Florida.
Through our newest curriculum, Project UNIFY, supported by the Department of Education, we have introduced 59 schools to our mission of inclusion and have had a tremendous impact on student attitudes and awareness about individuals with intellectual disabilities. In 2015, we will partner with key organizations such as the Florida High School Athletic Association and the Girls and Boys Club to offer additional competition opportunities to our athletes.
Once again, our health programs delivered vital wellness services, providing over $1 million dollars in services and health care related prescriptive care items, such as eye glasses and hearing aids. In 2014, Florida helped pioneer Healthy Community services based on the recent Special Olympics International scorecard. Nutrition and exercise counseling (preventative care) became an important part of Healthy Community in Florida and we will certainly see that success expand into our statewide programming in 2015. Support from new health partners, including Miami Children’s Hospital, Nemours Children’s Hospital and Lee Health Systems, provided unprecedented access to resources that have been invaluable to improving the health of Florida’s athletes. We are also extremely grateful for continued support from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities as we promote health care statewide to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
We were able to sustain this incredible growth and quality with a targeted and dedicated focus on resource development. Once again, the Torch Icon campaign was a huge success due to the incredible support and leadership of our Premier Partner, Publix Super Markets, and each County working together to spread awareness about our mission to Publix customers. In 2014, Special Olympics Florida delivered its first-ever million dollar fundraising event and thanks to our great law enforcement leaders we also hosted an outstanding inaugural Plane Pull. One of our signature events, the Polar Plunge at Aquatica, received record turnout with over 1,000 registered plungers and several counties participating.
Statewide, eight counties implemented our newest fundraising tool when they hosted a Breakfast of Champions. This programming has proven to be extremely successful and in 2015 we have over 30 more planned. These breakfasts are important as they are the building blocks to meeting annual and major supporters who will propel local programs to new heights. In 2014 Special Olympics Florida realized our first 2 major planned gifts, and with an investment in donor-specific software, will elevate how we relate to the supporters and donors who make our mission possible.
As a team, we have shared the joy of Special Olympics with nearly 50,000 athletes and volunteers statewide this year. Looking to the future, we hope that you will continue to share your spirit and excitement for the Special Olympics movement with all those who surround you.