For those connected with Special Olympics of Texas, it was a relief to hear President Donald Trump’s announcement Thursday that nearly $18 million in federal funding for Special Olympics would not be cut.
Trump’s announcement came just one day after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defended the proposal, which was part of almost $7 billion in total cuts from her department’s budget.
Special Olympics of Texas receives a portion of the funding that was originally slated to be cut, but that money is directed toward one program in particular called Unified Champion Schools, said David Norris, communications manager for Special Olympics of Texas.
The Unified Champion Schools program brings together students with and without intellectual disabilities in a sports atmosphere, teaching inclusion to students throughout the participating public schools, he said.
“If this went through, Special Olympics would still continue. It would still exist. It wouldn’t mean we would have to shut down or let people go; it just would mean that that program would very likely have to close down,” Norris explained, noting the focus of the money had been lost in the national discussion.
Though it would not affect the Special Olympics’ operations as a whole nationally or in Texas, he said, the program serves an important role in communities and to Special Olympic families and athletes.
“Specifically, the Unified Champions School is a very sharp, helpful program that goes much further than just our athletes,” he said. “That’s what was being targeted, so we are relieved to hear that most likely this is not going to go through.”
Currently, there are 200 public schools that participate in the Unified Champion Schools program and 700 schools that have submitted applications to join the program.
Bryan and College Station school districts do not have any schools in the national Unified Champion Schools program. According to the program’s website, the nearest participants to the Brazos Valley are in Waco and the Houston area.
In addition to federal funding, Special Olympics of Texas relies on both corporate sponsorships and public donations from throughout the state and the Law Enforcement Torch Run.
Colleges also have the opportunity to participate through Unified Sports, and this year marked the first year for Texas A&M University’s Unified Intramural Basketball League, which opened play in February. One of Texas A&M’s teams, The 12th Man, went on to play other teams from throughout the state in the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association’s (NIRSA) regional basketball tournament at the A&M Recreation Center on March 22-24.
The 12th Man team will now go on to represent Texas in the NIRSA National Basketball Championship in Wichita, Kansas, next month, competing in the first Unified division of the tournament, Special Olympics of Texas Area 6 Director Rose Stewart said.
“We had four teams in this NIRSA competition from around the state of Texas, and it just so happens that the Texas A&M team won and will be going on to the nationals,” Stewart said, echoing Norris’ note that the federal funding goes toward Unified programs in public schools and colleges. “That funding is helping us to be able to send our team to Kansas actually in two weeks to compete in the national NIRSA competition against other colleges from around the country. That’s really pretty big, and it’s pretty exciting for Bryan-College Station to actually be represented by our team.”
Nick Heiar, director of intramural sports at Texas A&M, was unable to be reached for comment Friday.
“We are in the inclusion revolution, so what that means basically is that it is our goal to make sure that our athletes are out there in the forefront; our athletes’ voices are being heard and then that they’re just able to be out and a part of everything. Bryan-College Station has really embraced that well. They have some really good clubs,” Stewart said. Area 6 of Special Olympics of Texas is based in Plantersville and covers 15 counties, including Brazos County.
In addition to encouraging inclusion through sports, Norris said, the nonprofit also runs multiple campaigns through the Unified Champion Schools program, including awareness campaigns.
“This is something where we provide support for that; we provide volunteers for that. And it really means a lot to our athletes, to the parents of the athletes, and not only that but just all the children in the school,” he said.
Participation in Special Olympics and Unified programs, Stewart said, gives students a sense of accomplishment and serves as a point of pride to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
She gave an example of a young girl in the eastern part of the area who was invited to join the cheer team.
“This little girl, she is basically wheelchair-bound and she can walk on a walker so often just because of the disability that she has. … I was able to speak with her mom, and she said, even the coach said when she put this uniform on, she was able to pull up enough energy to be able to do some cheers independently without her walker, without her wheelchair, “Stewart said. “Now, that meant for a couple of days she was bedridden, but just being able to be a part of something bigger than herself and knowing how much that impacted her gave her the strength and the energy to really push forward. It’s like that for a lot of our athletes.”
Stewart said she wants to see inclusion and partnerships between people with and without intellectual disabilities in high schools, colleges and in the community.
“Without funding to do a lot of this stuff, it just really makes it harder to do,” she said.
The federal government’s fiscal year will begin Oct. 1.