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Celebrating 50 Years of the Special Olympics

How local branches of the organization are adapting in 2021

By Taylor Shillam

Since its beginning as a backyard summer camp in 1962, the Special Olympics has come a long way.

Dedicated to changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities all across the world, the Special Olympics is now internationally recognized and has immeasurable impact on the lives of its athletes of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. An organization created to bring about inclusion now embodies the word in every sense.

Harnessing the power of sports, the Special Olympics empowers people with intellectual disabilities to continuously develop their strengths, skills and abilities. The organization’s mission is to provide opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and build strong bonds with family, friends and community members.

The Special Olympics operates through the calendar year and provides sports training and large-scale athletic competitions in a variety of sports for children and adults.

The organization’s beginning dates back to the early 1960s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver wanted to change the public’s perception of people with intellectual disabilities.

Shriver was the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, an organization whose efforts focused on reducing the societal neglect of people with intellectual disabilities. Being part of the Kennedy family and having a sibling with special needs gave Shriver the power and the passion to support her cause.

In 1962, after concerned parents approached Shriver about how difficult it was to find summer activities their children with special needs could participate in, her response was simple: “Enough.”

Declaring “enough” was a starting point, Shriver’s first big step in paving the way for change. She started Camp Shriver on her Maryland Farm for special needs children from her area, recruiting local students to act as counselors.

Camp Shriver focused on interaction and engagement. The children played, flourished and simply had fun. The camp quickly became a success and gained attention from community members and public officials.

By the summer of 1968, day camps similar to Camp Shriver were providing summer activities for more than 7,000 children with intellectual disabilities, and the next summer saw the first International Special Olympics Summer Games, held in Soldier Field, Chicago.

That year, Special Olympics became officially incorporated, and it was pledged that another Special Olympics would be held in 1970 and every two years thereafter. Their growth hasn’t slowed since; in the last several decades, the Special Olympics has gained momentum through worldwide growth and recognition.

Millions of athletes are now part of the Special Olympics movement, and it’s grown to be much more than summer camps and sports training. The organization provides health screenings, fundraising events, and chances for everyone to get involved, including local leaders, celebrities, law enforcement, businesses and more.

The organization holds thousands of events across the world each year and has created a program to advocate for inclusive health—meaning the ability of people with intellectual disabilities to take full advantage of the same health services as people without disabilities.

The Special Olympics’ health programming focuses on improving the well-being of people with special needs physically, socially and emotionally by increasing their access to health and wellness services. In fact, they are the world’s largest health-care provider for people with intellectual disabilities.

Even with its undeniable impact, the Special Olympics was not immune from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking a look closer to home, the Special Olympics branches of Idaho and Washington states have each had to adapt significantly over the course of the last year. Components of the organization that have been most affected include athlete engagement, fundraising and sponsorships. When it became impossible to hold in-person events, it required tough decisions, quick adaptations and an increased difficulty in matching the level of fundraising success seen in years past.

On April 20, 2020, Special Olympics Idaho made the difficult decision to cancel their Summer Games and all community-based programs for that year. “This was the first time in Special Olympics Idaho history,” said Director of Special Events Kristi Kraft, calling the cancellations “devastating” to their athletes, many of them who depend on Special Olympics for critical pillars of health like physical fitness and social interaction.

The effects of canceled events were felt across the organization.

“It’s hard,” stated Jaymelina Esmele, vice president of marketing and communications for Special Olympics Washington. “Going to events in person is a big social outlet for people who are already in social isolation because they are different.”

She recalled other barriers that arose when events turned virtual. “Not everyone has access to the internet or technological devices at home.”

Despite their best efforts in creating online challenges, virtual events and increased social media support, there would still be athletes the organization just couldn’t reach through the internet. Even still, the organization has met the pandemic’s challenges head-on, by boosting their social media campaigns, encouraging continued participation at home, enlisting virtual coaches and partners, and sending training kits to provide athletes with the necessary equipment to keep up with their physical fitness from home.

Thanks to donors’ support, Special Olympics Washington distributed 5,000 at-home training kits to athletes across the state earlier this year. The kits contained items to keep athletes active, including a pedometer and fitness DVDs—items that didn’t require an internet connection for use. The organization will be mailing another wave of kits later this year.

The impact of the Special Olympics has been called transformative, speaking to its ability to develop confidence and improve health on physical, mental and emotional levels. The achievements reached in a Special Olympics event translate into real achievements and real change in the rest of the world.

“Our athletes inspire people in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential,” the organization’s website reads.

There are as many as 200 million people with intellectual disabilities across the world, and the Special Olympics wants to touch the lives of them all. “The power and joy of sport shifts focus to what our athletes can do, not what they can’t,” the organization states. “Attention to disability fades away.” Replacing that attention is acknowledgement of what they can do—their talents, how able they are to accomplish major feats, and the heart of who they truly are.

It’s with this same grit and determination that the organization strives to stay engaging and successful throughout the pandemic.

Organizations like the Special Olympics are strong in their values and in their accomplishments, but in difficult times, even the strongest need support. There are many ways community members can contribute to the causes that drive the Special Olympics.

“Like many nonprofits, last year was very taxing on us financially,” Kraft said.

“We always look forward to community support through virtual volunteering and donations,” Esmele said, grateful for the support the organization continues to receive from community members.

Online donations are accepted through the organization’s websites or through Facebook’s donation pages. Amazon Smiles is an option that allows Amazon visitors to set up a charity as they shop. If they choose Special Olympics Idaho or Washington as their charity of choice, a percentage of their purchase will be donated to the organization.

Even before in-person events fully make their return, community members can still volunteer with the Special Olympics as a virtual coach or partner. These virtual mentors are paired with athletes to check in and offer critical support through their time training at home.

Community members can even show up as virtual Fans in the Stands, sharing their support by sending in an uplifting message, photo or video. This allows fans and supporters to cheer on Special Olympics athletes electronically, from wherever they are in the world.

The hope for more in-person events sustains into 2021. A few annual events remain on the horizon—along with the usual air of uncertainty during this time.

Special Olympics Idaho is currently in the training process for regional Summer Games.

“We have taken many precautions to keep our athletes safe by offering non-contact sports and regionalized competitions to limit the number of people at the event,” Kraft said.

Later this year, Special Olympics Idaho will host three regional “Night of Champion” Galas (in person), including one in Coeur d’Alene on September 23. The galas will celebrate 50 years of accomplishments and hopefully raise much-needed funding.

Across the border, Special Olympics Washington’s annual events remain virtual until further notice. They are currently in preparation for the launch of a six-week run/walk event. The event will encourage participants to run, walk, roll and stay active throughout the spring, and will also serve as a fundraiser. Participants can register online, obtain a miles goal for movement throughout May, and meet their mileage goal by June. Anyone and everyone will be welcome to join. Full details will be released this April on their website at

Special Olympics Washington’s fall fundraiser, typically a five-course dinner with a featured chef, wine pairing and both live and silent auctions, went virtual in 2020. This year, they hope to offer a hybrid option, with a virtual component to stay within guidelines and provide options to those staying home.

While events and fundraisers remain virtual, Special Olympics Washington will continue their online training options, including virtual workshops, interactive game nights and challenges for charity to keep both athletes and community members engaged. They even hosted a virtual Polar Plunge and series of Winter Games to welcome 2021.

“Although we’re all home and staying safe, not getting together in person, there’s a lot of work we’re doing to keep athletes engaged at this time,” Esmele said, emphasizing the importance of maintaining social connection for their athletes.

This year, stay connected with the stories and athletes of the Special Olympics as they celebrate their 50th anniversary. The organization will feature an athlete’s profile on social media each Friday for 50 weeks. Look for their celebrated athletes on their social media accounts and on Vimeo.

For more information on participating in virtual events, fundraisers, galas or athlete engagement, contact Kristi at or visit

The Special Olympics began as a way for people with intellectual disabilities to be included—to play, grow, to connect, and to use their abilities to the fullest.

An organization that focuses on what can be accomplished is certain to do just that in 2021: accomplish big, life-changing things despite the necessary adaptations that have come with the past year. With support from the community, Special Olympics athletes can continue the physical training, social support and emotional growth they depend on into 2021 and beyond.

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