The Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games may have been canceled, but it ultimately led to the creation of something else — stronger virtual bonds between the organization, coaches and athletes to ensure its mission of inclusivity continues.
Special Olympics of Pennsylvania has been encouraging inclusivity throughout the commonwealth for 50 years. Each June, the organization holds its summer games at Penn State — a tradition that won’t be stopping anytime soon.
“We’ve partnered with some of the sports teams there and our local program is very active with groups on campus, so we love the relationship that we have with [Penn State],” Matthew Aaron, the president and CEO of Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, said. “We’ve got a really long standing, wonderful partnership with Penn State and you know, we’d love to see that get stronger and deeper.”
The 2020 Virtual Summer Games will take place from June 12-14, but instead of convening at the university, athletes are training and will compete from the safety of their own homes.
SOPA aims to provide an experience for its athletes that will mirror an in-person celebration, and has been working closely with local programs to assist athletes with the virtual transfer.
A pair of former Penn State swimmers have gone from working out in McCoy Natatorium to worki…
An in-person celebration of the event in the future has yet to be determined by the organization.
SOPA is attempting to further community involvement as well, emphasizing the organization’s goal of inclusivity through a virtual platform. The virtual setting also helps the Penn State community become more involved, according to SOPA Central Pennsylvania competition director Teresa Amaturo.
“What we’re trying to create is a story — a story that tells what Special Olympics is and how it impacts our athletes, how it impacts our volunteers, how it impacts the community,” Amaturo said. “We’re reaching out to volunteers and asking them to submit a short video of some of their experiences so we can help tell this story.”
The cancellation of in-person programming is another result of the global coronavirus pandemic, but a necessary step for protecting the safety of those involved with the event, according to university spokesperson Lisa Powers.
“There are many from the Penn State community who have, in the past, volunteered their time to help make the games happen, and this event is always a source of great inspiration and joy,” Powers said via email. “We are proud to support these athletes in any way we can.”
Since numerous other in-person fundraising initiatives — such as the Beaver Stadium Run — have been canceled, SOPA launched the Innovation Lab — a new initiative “to foster more rapid and effective innovation” including a “return to play” and adaptation of fundraising events to an online format, according to the SOPA website.
Working across various sectors of the organization and with a national task force, SOPA is using the Innovation Lab to reach athletes across the state and engage with the Special Olympics Community.
“People were trying to come up with these creative solutions on top of everything else that they were thinking about in their daily jobs and their daily lives,” Aaron said. “The spark for the Innovation Lab was this thought of bringing a focus group together and really tasking events specifically with innovation… We brought together a team of staff from all different parts of the organization, so different departments had different types of experiences.”
Given the opportunities the initiative provides, Aaron sees the lab playing an integral role in the future of SOPA. For years, the organization has struggled to reach certain athletes in rural and urban areas because of transportation barriers.
Involving numerous perspectives to fuel the Innovation Lab initiative, options are now offered to athletes virtually, and SOPA can envision a future where its community is expanded because of the accessibility of this technology.
“If we can now offer fitness in a way that is compelling virtually, that opens up huge possibilities for us in terms of reaching an entirely new audience of athletes,” Aaron said. “That’s where I see the real power of our Innovation Lab. It’s not only helping us to react quickly to the coronavirus and come up with innovative solutions to serve our assets now, but I think long-term, it can fundamentally change how we do some of our programming.”