Special Olympics funding cuts could hurt local athletes

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Special Olympics stands at a symbol of hope for more than 200 athletes in Vanderburgh County. Across the country there are more than 270,000 kids who play.

Some of that could be stripped down, however, and local advocates fear the worst.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is under fire after proposing budget cuts totaling $7 billion from the overall education department budget. That includes gutting money for Special Olympics, after school programs, and support for students from low-income families.

DeVos defended her stance Wednesday, saying she “loves” the Special Olympics’ work. She argues “the federal government cannot fund every worthy program.”

Evansville athletes could face bigger hurdles if cuts are made.

“My life wouldn’t be the same,” said athlete Brian Kellems. It’s hard for him to imagine his life without Special Olympics. “Nothing, just sitting on the couch.”

Kellems’ mom, Tami is the fundraising coordinator for Vanderburgh County’s program. It operates completely on donations and gets no money from the federal government. Still, DeVos’ proposal strikes a chord.

“I don’t want to think that, to be honest,” Tami said. “I mean it would impact so many kids.”

Susan Adler, Vanderburgh County Special Olympics coordinator, says Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation is a Unified Champion School and does get money from the feds.

“With that funding, it helps put kids with regular kids, it helps deter bullying, and makes them feel like they’re part of a group in their school,” said Adler.

Vanderburgh County’s program needs volunteers for the spring, and they are looking for younger athletes, between 8 and 18 to sign up.

Many athletes in the schools also play with the county group. Adler has seen athletes flourish over the years, which is an opportunity rarely afforded to people with disabilities.

Special Olympics of Indiana released a statement Wednesday in response to DeVos’ proposal.

Special Olympics is a nonpartisan organization that strongly supports policies, legislation and practices that guarantee the rights, full participation, and integration of people with intellectual disabilities (ID).

Special Olympics recognizes the progress that has been made around the country in eliminating the stigma, stereotypes, isolation, and discrimination that people with intellectual disabilities face – most importantly around access to sport, health, and education opportunities and services. We ask federal, state and local governments to join Special Olympics in remaining vigilant against any erosion of provisions that have made a substantial difference in the lives of people with ID.

As is the case each year after the President presents his budget to Congress, we engage in opportunities, such as our annual Capitol Hill Day activities, to educate lawmakers about why grant funding for our health and education programming is critical to protecting and increasing access to these services for people with intellectual disabilities.

We look forward to continuing to raise awareness among U.S. government officials about the important work that Special Olympics is doing in the United States and around the world.

Adler says it’s disappointing to hear a government leader want to make cuts.

“If she would just spend one day at a practice with these athletes and with some of the unified partners, she would see what kind of a difference this makes in their lives. Without seeing that, you don’t understand anything but numbers on a page.”

For many athletes it’s lifelong friendships that keep them going. Win or lose, that is something they’ll always have.

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This story was originally published on March 27, 2019

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