Andrew Fee, Regional Executive Director of Special Olympics in Pennsylvania, knows that a lot of people think his organization just runs a track and field meet for people with intellectual disabilities once a year. And while it does do that, a track and field meet only scratches the surface of what Special Olympics is about and what it does for people with intellectual disabilities across the state, and around the world.
The benefit of Special Olympics may start at sports, but studies have shown that what this organization does helps in many other ways. Participation builds confidence and a positive self-image for people with intellectual disabilities, and this, in turn, contributes to physical, social and psychological development.
What does that mean, really? While Andrew has only been in his role for less than a year, he can easily talk about that benefit, one precious person at a time.
Andrew shares the example of one young athlete from the Pittsburgh area who had a difficult homelife. When he started participating in Special Olympics and discovered the sports of kick boxing, basketball and bowling, his life took a turn for the better.
“Special Olympics means so much to this athlete that he takes three to four different buses to take advantage of the opportunities,” Andrew says. “He figures out what wants to do and where he needs to go, and then maps out his routes in advance. He has found joy through physical activity, new friendships and accomplishments.”
Special Olympics actually has joy in its mission statement.
“And that joy in the mission statement is real,” Andrew explains. Real as in, carried out by the staff and volunteers who are dedicated to the mission; and real as in, lived out by the athletes.
Alisa Caton’s 31-year-old niece, Krista, is an active Special Olympics athlete who has participated in more than 10 different sports over the years. “Krista was once very shy, afraid, and didn't communicate much. Because of her involvement in Special Olympics and the many sports that she participates in, she now has confidence in her abilities, communicates with everyone, and has exceeded expectations in her sports training and competitions.”
Seeing the impact this experience has had on her niece, Alisa decided to step up and has been volunteering as a Special Olympics coach for about five years.
Andrew speaks of the impact the athletes have. “Our Special Olympics athletes are individuals who often times have a lot stacked against them. They have to strive in ways we can’t imagine. Things don’t come easy to them, but they have an appreciation for life. They don’t complain but smile and always give their very best.
“The positive attitude of our athletes has an impact on me. How can I complain about anything?”
Andrew points out that individuals with intellectual disabilities have an average life expectancy that is 17 years less than those without intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics is dedicated to providing their athletes with access and opportunities to help provide healthier, better quality and subsequently longer lives.
He shares another little-known fact: Special Olympics is the world’s largest public health organization for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It provides access to free health services for this population with significant, unmet health needs.
The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program is designed to improve athletes’ health and fitness with non-invasive screenings at no cost to athletes and their families. Healthy Athletes is made up of medical programs such as Opening Eyes (vision care), Special Smiles (dental screenings), Healthy Hearing and more.
The ages of those served are from 8-80, although no one ever “ages out.” Over 50% are adults over the age of 30. Andrew’s region is the largest in Pennsylvania, serving nine counties, including Allegheny. A small staff of five people will oversee the program that serves thousands.
Volunteers, donors and partnerships make the difference. “We couldn’t serve the people who need us without the support of incredible, generous people,” Andrew stresses. “We welcome the gifts of those who give their time and resources.”
“… remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
- Acts 20:35
“That also includes some specific corporations and groups, such as law enforcement. Police officers, in particular, have been valued partners with us.”
Alisa Caton feels that Andrew Fee is the right man at the right time for this job. “He is a very caring person, and is dedicated to our athletes. He's always interested in ways to promote and enhance our organization so we can continue to grow our programs and provide as many opportunities as possible.”
What more would Andrew like to accomplish? He doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Special Olympics can do more by building new community partnerships. We can effectively build relationships and make a bigger impact by working with organizations who are already doing great things.”
An example he cited is Life’sWork, an organization that finds meaningful employment for people looking for a job. It helps the disabled to find, train for and maintain meaningful employment, with the goal of achieving greater independence. Together, Special Olympics and Life’sWork may be able to pull their strengths for the benefit of intellectually disabled adults. Where there is synergy, there’s potential beyond what anyone can imagine.
Andrew says he feels called to be working at Special Olympics and humbly knows he can make an impact. God can do anything. Especially when joy is in the mission.
“. . . but with God all things are possible.”
- Mathew 19:26