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The story of Special Olympics begins over half a century ago when Eunice Kennedy Shriver witnessed how unfairly society treated people with intellectual disabilities. Noticing how children with intellectual disabilities didn’t have a place to play, Shriver took action. She held a summer day camp for young people with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard. The goal was to learn what these children could do in sports and other activities – and not dwell on what they could not do.
Throughout the 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver continued her pioneering work — both as the driving force behind President John F. Kennedy’s White House panel on people with intellectual disabilities and as the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Her vision and drive for justice eventually grew into the Special Olympics movement.
In July 1968, the first International Special Olympics Summer Games was held at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. 1,000 people with intellectual disabilities from 26 U.S. states and Canada competed in athletics (track and field) and swimming. Just a few years later the U.S. Olympic Committee granted Special Olympics official authorization to use the name “Olympics” in the United States.
By the late 70s, the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Colorado was broadcasted by CBS, ABC, and NBC. By the time the 5th Winter Games came around in 1993, the games had moved to an international stage in Austria.
Today, Special Olympics provides athletic competition for more than 4 million athletes, with 1 million volunteers worldwide across 229 Accredited Special Olympics Programs in over 170 countries. Special Olympics offers 32 Olympic-type sports and more than 50,000 competitions per year.
Special Olympics Pennsylvania – Philadelphia (SOPA – Philly) was first introduced in 1979. The program consisted of one small track and field competition run by the Junior Council Chamber of Commerce and the Area Coordinator, John Lewis, who was the Special Education Supervisor for the School District of Philadelphia. The athlete population consisted of mostly adults and the games were held at Franklin Field.
In 1982, Winn Tillary, the Director of Special Education for the School District of Philadelphia and a member of the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA), was introduced to a young physical education teacher, Donald White. Don had already been working with students with intellectual disabilities at Douglass High School for a few years. With the help of Kathy McDonald, Don hosted a volleyball competition for children with intellectual disabilities. It was then that Winn Tillary approached Donald about replacing John Lewis as the Area Coordinator for SOPA – Philly in hopes that Don would work to promote Special Olympics throughout the entire School District. This idea was taken back to Frank Dean, then Executive Director of SOPA, and the Board for its approval. It was decided that the School District would fully fund the salary for Don White as Director of Special Olympics Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Special Olympics was offered as part of the adapted physical education program in the Philadelphia Schools.
As the years passed, Don gained the support of Constance Clayton, who at the time was the Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. She made it a requirement that all Special Education and Physical Education Teachers support, recruit, and coach Special Olympics athletes during the school day. The School District not only provided the salary of the Director of Special Olympics Pennsylvania – Philadelphia but also provided transportation, office space, supplies and many more amenities to Special Olympics Pennsylvania – Philadelphia. Philadelphia had its highest recorded number of athletes totaling 2000 in the year 1997.
In 2001 with the retirement of Mr. White and the District’s own budget constraints, the support of the School District slowly started to decline. Without the large philosophical support and full in-kind contributions of the School District, Special Olympics Pennsylvania – Philadelphia had to relocate and become responsible for funding the Director’s salary and other program-related expenses. In 2005 the School District had to make the difficult resource decision to completely pull all in-kind services, which had an approximate value of $100,000. This change in SOPA- Philadelphia “administration”, the program’s budget constraints in staffing allocations, along with school-related changes (in-kind and leadership priorities) led to a decline of participating Special Education students to approximately 800 in total – both adult and school age.
In 2010, Special Olympics PA – Philadelphia rekindled its school-based program that was named, Interscholastic Unified Sports program, or commonly known as IUS, where soccer was the sport of choice. Students with and without intellectual disabilities made up their school’s Unified Team. The team practiced during the school day and also attended local league play days with other schools participating in the program.
April 26, 2015: Special Olympics Philadelphia hosts their very first YOUNG ATHLETES™ Session! This program included an 8-week session focusing on motor skills, flexibility, coordination, and strength. The first Young Athletes Program took place at the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA in Northeast Philadelphia. As with any Special Olympics programs, it was completely free for all participants. Our first session was so popular that there was even a wait list!
December 4, 2015: Special Olympics PA – Philadelphia makes a splash in Philadelphia as we host our first ever Philadelphia Polar Plunge. The Philadelphia Polar Plunge becomes Special Olympics PA’s ninth plunge offered in the state during Plunge Season (November – February). In the first year, the Philadelphia Polar Plunge had 300+ plungers and raised over $65,000!
December 10, 2015: Special Olympics Philadelphia holds the first indoor bocce friendly competition for our Elementary and Middle Schools participating in our Interscholastic Unified Sports (IUS) program. We had over 100 Unified athletes and partners gather at Pennrose Elementary School. Schools in attendance include Pennrose, Austin Meehan, and Universal Daroff Charter School.
February 2016: Special Olympics Philadelphia launches a new program site in South Philadelphia. The South Philadelphia program started with Basketball and six athletes. Throughout the course of the year, the South Philadelphia program expanded into soccer and volleyball and had over 25 active athletes training and competing.
April 2017: Special Olympics PA, Philadelphia expands the Interscholastic Unified Sports Program with the addition of Athletics. In April, Special Olympics PA, Philadelphia held two scrimmages and a Championship at South Supersite where George Washington High School, Hill Freedman World Academy, Martin Luther King High School, and South Philadelphia High School attended. The Championship took place at the South Philadelphia SuperSite.
November 2018: Two of our high schools, Abraham Lincoln High School and George Washington High School are honored with National Banner Recognition from Special Olympics International.
December 2018: After tremendous growth at the Philadelphia Polar Plunge, SOPA – Philly launches the Philadelphia Suburban Polar Plunge, for a second day of Cool School plunging (aka, high schools). In its inaugural year, the Philadelphia Suburban Plunge contributed over $30,000 to the Philadelphia Polar Plunge which raised over $170,000 in the fourth year.