In the five years since Special Olympics launched its Healthy Communities initiative, Thomas Golisano, the Rochester philanthropist and Paychex Inc. founder, has donated $37 million to the program.
On Friday, Golisano was honored for his contributions at a private event at Rochester Institute of Technology’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, where the latest Golisano Archives Exhibit was unveiled.
“What Healthy Communities is all about is many athletes come to our events with some sort of physical disability. It could be eyes, ears, teeth, feet, and what Healthy Communities does is it sets up tents at the events and doctors from the community come in and volunteer and they diagnose the young people,” Golisano explained. “In some cases they can actually make a recommendation.”
The program stockpiles hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses, for example, so if doctors see a youngster who needs glasses, chances are they have something that will benefit the child.
“The doctors are great,” Golisano added. “They do it on a volunteer basis.”
Healthy Communities is the brainchild of Golisano and Special Olympics International Chairman Timothy Shriver, who wanted to improve health outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that all were receiving health services and reaching their full potential.
The program would build upon the already successful Special Olympics Healthy Athletes initiative, which was started in 1997 and offers health services and information to athletes in dire need.
In 2016, Special Olympics health experts conducted more than 150,000 free screenings around the world. To date, more than 1.9 million Healthy Athletes screenings have been given in more than 135 countries.
The first four years of the Healthy Communities initiative was a trial balloon, Golisano said Friday.
“It went great so we saw no reason not to continue,” he said, adding with a smile that the program’s success was astounding.
The Healthy Communities program targets all individuals with intellectual disabilities, particularly those in rural areas underserved by medicine. A Healthy Community is a location officially recognized by Special Olympics for efforts in creating year-round access to quality health care.
“With the support of the Golisano Foundation and the general investment of Tom Golisano, we are trying to support countries, governments on transforming their health systems and their services, and to facilitate access for people with intellectual disabilities,” said Javier Vasquez, senior director of health systems for Special Olympics. “Our goal is to have 11 million people with intellectual disabilities with access to health care by 2020.”
Special Olympics has some 5 million athletes, and the vast majority participate in the Healthy Athletes screenings, Vasquez said.
“We need to work harder in order to unlock these services in general hospitals, in national clinics, in local clinics, in national health facilities and in private services, too,” he added. “This investment is empowering health systems in 170 countries and opening doors in so many countries to guarantee access for people with intellectual disabilities.”
During Friday’s presentation, RIT President David Munson noted that both the Golisano Foundation and the Special Olympics were renowned for their work in helping individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“When they joined together to launch the Healthy Communities initiative, their combined power began transforming the experiences for many people around the world from struggle to strength,” Munson said.
Some 200 million people around the world have intellectual disabilities, said Ann Costello, Golisano Foundation’s executive director, many of whom suffer from needless chronic pain and disease because they lack access to basic health care. Health indicators show that people with intellectual disabilities are two times more likely to die before age 50 than adults without intellectual disabilities.
“Thanks to Tom, and his initial gift of $12 million, 2012 was a pivotal year for people with intellectual disabilities. It marked the start of an entirely new health programming model for Special Olympics,” Costello said, adding that she was at the 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles to announce Golisano’s additional $25 million gift. “I think when you work with Tom and Tim Shriver and you put together a vision, a commitment, and you work hard, you get results.”
The Healthy Communities progress continues in 80 communities in 54 countries around the world, Costello said.
Special Olympian Hanna Atkinson was on hand Friday to offer her story of both hope and success. Born with Down syndrome, Atkinson at the age of 2 was diagnosed with leukemia.
“This is the story of what can happen when a girl with Down syndrome survives cancer,” Atkinson said in a video she submitted for Special Olympics consideration. “She can go from being a girl who talked with her hands to being a girl who gives a commencement speech at her high school graduation. She can be a TV reporter for Denver 7 News. She can be a girl whose life is filled with adventure.”
Atkinson thanked Golisano for his support of Special Olympics.
“Without his support, Special Olympics athletes would not be able to pursue our dreams and realize our full potential,” said the 2016 Special Olympics Silver and Bronze medalist.
The latest Golisano Archives Exhibit, located at RIT’s College of Computing, contains a world map showing where the Healthy Communities programs have been established, as well as medals and lanyards from Special Olympics International showing the importance of the connection to their events.
The display also includes a hand-painted batik thanking Golisano and a number of cards from children around the world thanking him for what he has done.
“One of the most important things that Tom Golisano and the Golisano Foundation have done for the Special Olympics movement is bring about real change to the health of people with intellectual disabilities around the world,” Atkinson said. “My vision, as a Special Olympics health messenger, is to improve and educate others to be their best self, to live a healthier, happier life.”