This story is part of Made in Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.
Hugs and smiles and high fives are routine when the Arcadia University Special Athletes Association interacts with competitors with disabilities.
Modeled after the Special Olympics unified sports program -- in which the volunteers play with the athletes as opposed to coach from the sidelines -- ASAA has hosted sports events, holiday parties, and pancake breakfasts throughout the Arcadia school year. ASAA serves as the umbrella partnership for three separate organizations: Arcadia, Rotary Special Athletes, and Special Olympics Pennsylvania.
“I’ve gained exposure to a community that I never interacted with before,” said Nick McMullen, an Arcadia junior and president of ASAA. “I’m here to be their friend. So I like coming here and everyone being excited to see me and me being excited to see them."
Despite the enthusiasm of the ASAA volunteers, it’s a tough time for Special Olympics Pennsylvania because it is facing controversial federal government funding cuts.
ASAA began in the late 1980s and dedicates every Thursday during the Arcadia school year from 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. to teach volleyball to athletes with special needs. At Bryn Athyn Church School in Montgomery County, the players practice on teams of six and go on to compete at Special Olympics tournaments across the state.
ASAA’s annual Sportsfest took place on April 7 at Arcadia’s Kuch Athletic Center, and the volunteers coached the athletes in soccer, swimming, volleyball, basketball, karate, and relay races. ASAA also hosts annual dances at Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween at Arcadia’s Grey Towers Castle.
“Playing the game of volleyball is fun and social, and we do different outings," said Andrew Gillespie, a Special Olympics athlete.
ASAA has 80 members, and 12 attended a recent volleyball practice. The practice began with stretches that progressed to a light jog around the gym. The athletes then separated into small groups and focused on refining their serving and setting skills before playing a game with the volunteers.
David Paone, the ASAA director, started as a Arcadia student volunteer in 2002. He said the program, which includes both current and former Arcadia students, focuses on the Special Olympics’ unified theme because the close interaction between the volunteers and athletes has proved to be effective in creating positive outcomes.
“It’s been a great way to connect to Arcadia and to a good cause,” Paone said.
The athletes range in age from 18 to the late-60s and have diverse racial, social, and economic backgrounds, which Paone said has kept the program vibrant. There have even been athletes who first met their spouse at a practice.
“We have a real mixed bag here,” Paone said.
But there are troubling issues facing the groups. Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, made a decision last month to cut $17.6 million of federal funding to Special Olympics. That sent a message to the public of an intolerance to inclusion, said Kerry Leraris, one of the ASAA founders. Families that would be impacted are still upset despite President Donald Trump walking back the budget cut days later.
Leraris said she doesn’t understand why the government can’t divert the money from all the other programs that could be impacted by cuts. “Why did all the money have to come from just Special Olympics?” she said.
In September 2010, 20 years after the Americans with Disability Act was enacted, the law was revised to include Title II, which provides everyone with a disability the right to work. However, on March 6, Pennsylvania’s Office of Developmental Programs, which provides jobs for people with developmental disabilities, received notice that its funding is to be cut by 24.5 percent.
The office’s clients -- those with disabilities -- can work on office-supervised assembly lines or directly with independent businesses in the community. The notice of funding cuts states that the 24.5 percent cut will be reallocated from assembly-line employees to workers in the community.
Ann Schultz, whose son has special needs, is concerned that funds reallocated to clients “in the community” is not specific enough. What will that mean for her son, who works on one of the assembly lines. If he is moved out into the community to an independent business, she wonders if there will be enough supervision.