Nine New York high schools have been named as National Banner Unified Champion Schools by Special Olympics New York, including four in the Greater Rochester region.
Churchville-Chili, Irondequoit, Newark and Victor central school districts received the recognition for their leadership in creating an inclusive school community where all students are accepted, celebrated and included. The distinction marks the highest level of achievement for Unified Champion Schools in the nation.
“I cannot be prouder of all the hard work of our athletes, partners and Youth Activation Committee (YAC) student leaders, who have brought a positive spotlight onto Irondequoit High School by pushing the ideas of inclusion and acceptance,” said Irondequoit Unified Coach and YAC Adviser Kelly Moroni in a statement. “Every event we hold through Unified Sports, YAC activities or Special Olympics New York activities, we share the idea that there are no disabilities – just different abilities. Everyone brings something different to the table, field, or court. We celebrate all our accomplishments no matter how big or small.”
In a Special Olympics Unified Champion School, students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same interscholastic sports team, primarily basketball and bowling. The students also serve as youth leaders who engage the entire school community in activities that encourage and promote inclusion among their peers.
“Students, coaches and educators in more than 10,000 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools across the country are changing a generation by choosing to include all students in all activities, and our banner schools in New York are the best of the best,” said Special Olympics New York President and CEO Stacey Hengsterman. “We are incredibly proud to kick off the 2020-2021 school year by recognizing the achievements of our banner schools and encouraging others to join this critically important movement to inclusion.”
Statewide, Special Olympics New York partners with more than 220 Unified Champion Schools and nearly 10,000 participating students. Upstate, a partnership with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has led to rapid Unified growth in recent years.
“Since the inception of our program five years ago, Unified has truly been a life-changing experience for everyone involved,” said Churchville-Chili Unified Coach Katie Cobstill. “Playing Unified helps build students’ confidence, improves their social skills, creates lifelong friendships and helps everyone feel like they are a part of something really special. Off the court, the change in the culture has been incredible to witness. Students with significant special needs and typical high school students are seen high-fiving in the hallways, eating lunch together, attending school events together, and developing genuine friendships.”
The Golisano Training Center at Nazareth College of Rochester will host the inaugural Festival of Inclusion, an event sponsored by the Golisano Foundation, Special Olympics New York and Best Buddies International.
The March 1 event will feature free fun and games to kick off the annual Spread the Word Inclusion campaign.
“We are proud to build on our annual Spread the Word Inclusion campaign, making an even bigger impact to stop all types of discrimination against people including those with intellectual disabilities,” said Golisano Foundation Executive Director Ann Costello in a statement. “This new Festival of Inclusion will celebrate the impressive shifts we have made over the last decade and promote what still needs to be done.”
Costello said the agency is asking organizations to get involved and for people to take the pledge to show how they will be more inclusive in their schools, workplaces and community.
“Working together we can inspire acceptance and advocate for respectful words and actions in all aspects of our lives,” Costello said.
The festival will feature sports activities including an “East vs. West” unified basketball tournament, pickleball, cheerleading and tennis; music and dance; a photo booth; community inclusion stations featuring interactive and creative activities and demonstrations; a pep rally; food trucks; and more.
“I live my life each day to make an impact in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by promoting the power of friendship,” said David Quilleon, Best Buddies senior vice president and Festival of Inclusion emcee. “Inclusion is important in this idea as it cultivates friendship and diversity while creating a more empathetic and welcoming culture. Inclusion unites the authenticity of all of us.”
Best Buddies is a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Special Olympics New York athletes and Unified partners have emerged as the leaders of a global movement to inclusion, one that is supported by community events such as the Festival of Inclusion and the annual Spread the Word campaign,” said Stacey Hengsterman, Special Olympics New York president and CEO. “We are proud to partner with the Golisano Foundation and Best Buddies once again to share the Special Olympics message of inclusion and continue our work to make New York the most inclusive state in the country.”
Roughly 1,000 athletes and coaches will descend on Rochester next month as it plays host to the Special Olympics New York State Winter Games.
The event will be held Feb. 22 and 23 at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center. Athletes will compete in six winter sports including alpine and cross country skiing, figure skating, floor hockey, snowboarding and snowshoeing.
“The opportunity to compete in Winter Games motivates our athletes all year, and we are so happy to be celebrating their achievements in partnership with the Rochester community,” Special Olympics New York President and CEO Stacey Hengsterman said in a statement. “The games are truly a shared accomplishment between our organization and the host community, which plays a leading role in attracting volunteers, raising funds and promoting the event to ensure its success, not only for Special Olympics New York athletes and their families but for all those who attend.”
Athletes train year-round and compete in a series of local events in order to qualify for state games. Athletes attending from throughout New York State next month have outplayed more than 30,000 of their peers in floor hockey and more than 2,000 of their peers in the five remaining sports.
“We are thrilled to host the Special Olympics New York Winter Games in Monroe County once again,” said County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, who will serve as honorary chair of the event. “The Winter Games give us an opportunity to highlight what makes our community special, but more importantly, to highlight the bravery and perseverance of the incredible athletes who compete. It has been inspiring to get to know many of our local athletes and their families as honorary chair, and I look forward to welcoming our visiting athletes at the games in February.”
In October, Dinolfo and Special Olympics officials put out a call for volunteers. Volunteers are still needed during competitions on Feb. 23. Opportunities include set-up, food service, starters, timers, social media ambassadors and fans.
Rochester has a long history with Special Olympics, dating to 1979 when SUNY College at Brockport hosted the International Special Olympics World Summer Games, which featured sports figures such as Muhammad Ali, Rafer Johnson, Hank Aaron and Bobby Orr.
It’s not every day you have the opportunity to see Little Orphan Annie rub elbows with Superman while men in hockey sweaters hoist a homemade Stanley Cup in the air, but on Sunday you may see just that.
Special Olympics New York and the Law Enforcement Torch Run will be Freezin’ for a Reason Feb. 11 at Lake Ontario Beach Park as they host the 18th annual Rochester Polar Plunge. Roughly 2,000 brave plungers will parade into the wintry waters of Lake Ontario beginning at noon.
The Rochester Polar Plunge is the largest for Special Olympics New York across the state.
Polar Plunge organizers hope to raise $300,000 to support nearly 72,000 athletes in New York State so that they, their parents and caregivers don’t have to pay to get healthy, compete, train, make long-lasting friendships and have fun being part of the Special Olympics.
The event includes entertainment, food, a costume contest and the annual plunge. Participants have to raise at least $60 in order to take the plunge and receive an official sweatshirt.
Precise Tool & Manufacturing is the presenting sponsor this year.
The Polar Plunge was started by officers who belong to the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics. The Law Enforcement Torch Run is an organization that is comprised of police officers from local, state and federal agencies who are dedicated to raising funds and awareness for Special Olympics.
Each year, in addition to hosting Polar Plunge events and other fundraising initiatives, police officers from around the world come together to run the torch through their respective regions in an effort to create awareness for Special Olympics. In New York, nearly 3,000 police officers annually support the Law Enforcement Torch run and raise more than $3 million for the athletes and programs.
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.”
Philanthropist B. Thomas Golisano will be honored at Rochester Institute of Technology Friday, Oct. 20, as the university acknowledges his contributions, especially those for people with developmental disabilities.
The event Friday afternoon will take place at an exhibit on the Golisano Archives – housed at RIT – that will open to the public the following day. Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics International, will speak at the event about an initiative to which Golisano has contributed $37 million: the Special Olympics’ Healthy Communities initiative.
“As a tireless advocate for the Special Olympics movement,” Shriver said, “Tom and the Golisano Foundation enable and empower communities of care, where the contributions of people with intellectual disabilities are better understood, encouraged and valued by all.” The Healthy Communities initiative seeks to reduce health disparities that people with intellectual disabilities often face related to access to health services.
The archive exhibit will be displayed in the atrium of Golisano Hall, home to the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.
Golisano is founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., a payroll, human resources and benefits provider for more than 500,000 companies nationwide.
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