News Article Details

Special Olympics parents 'disheartened' by DeVos' proposed cuts to funding

Leader-Telegram - 3/28/2019

March 28-- Mar. 28--Deb Sommer has seen firsthand the way Special Olympics changes lives.

For nearly a decade, her 16-year-old son Trevor has played sports such as bowling, basketball and track through the organization. Every time Sommer picks up her son, a student at North High School, from practices or watches him compete in statewide games, one thing is evident to her: the pure and utter joy the organization brings him and all other children involved.

"(Special Olympics) has had a huge impact on his life," Sommer said of her son, who is developmentally delayed and has some physical disabilities due to a genetic deficiency called ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC). "It's great for me to know that he is doing something he loves and enjoys. You can just see on all the kids' faces that sense of inclusion, you know?"

But when Sommer heard U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' proposal to cut all $18 million in federal funding for Special Olympics, she was disheartened -- not for her own family, but for the many others across the nation and world.

"Many, many other children and adults would be affected if there would be such a large cut in such a wonderful organization," Sommer said. "I just don't know how this could pass."

The proposal

DeVos' proposal for the elimination of federal Special Olympics funding drew a storm of criticism from politicians on both sides of the aisle as well as high-profile athletes and celebrities.

In a statement on Wednesday, DeVos said she "loves" the organization's work and has "personally supported its mission." But she also noted that Special Olympics is a private nonprofit that raises $100 million a year on its own and, ultimately, the Education Department cannot afford to fund it.

"There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don't get a dime of federal grant money," she said. "Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations."

Special Olympics, an international nonprofit organization established in 1968, aims to provide year-round sports training and athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities while also promoting worldwide acceptance and inclusion of all people, according to the mission statement listed on its website. The agency serves more than 5 million athletes across 174 countries.

The organization also provides federally funded programming in about 6,500 schools across the U.S. The program uses sports as a means of promoting inclusion and preventing bullying. In the Chippewa Valley, St. Croix Central Middle School in Hammond, Hudson High School and Gilman High School host such programming.

Special Olympics of Wisconsin, which serves about 10,000 athletes statewide and 1,500 in the Indianhead region that covers the northwestern corner of the state, declined to comment on the proposal other than to provide the nonprofit's official statement.

"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)," the statement reads. "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 ... 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."

'A continual fight'

To Joy Krogstad of Chippewa Falls, it doesn't matter where the funding would be cut. It doesn't matter that her 21-year-old son Eli would not be affected.

To her, the proposed cuts are yet another example of the continual fight she faces in advocating for people like her son, a student at Chippewa Falls High School who has an intellectual disability.

"Anytime you see something like this, it makes your heart sink," Krogstad said. "I've been battling this forever. It's like a continual fight for something that should be a basic right."

Because of the way special education programming works at the middle and high school levels, students like Krogstad's son often do not get to participate in mainstream gym classes. In addition, students with disabilities are also not able to participate in school sports. While Krogstad said she can understand that, at the same time she wonders: "Where is my kid supposed to go?"

That's where Special Olympics has come in for Eli, who participates in bowling, basketball and swimming.

"Once he's in it and with his friends, he's like a different kid," Krogstad said. "To be able to have these opportunities, getting them active and social -- it's so very important."

"I feel like this (funding) should be a non-negotiable," Krogstad continued. "There should be money set aside for this purpose."

Not all about sports

Over the past three decades, Hanna Hengst of Eau Claire has watched her sister Talena flourish because of her involvement in the organization, which has taken her to regional and state competitions as well as the 1999 Special Olympics World Games, where she competed as part of the Wisconsin all-star softball team.

But for people like 38-year-old Talena, who has an intellectual disability, Special Olympics isn't all about sports, Hengst said. It's an opportunity to socialize and make friends, many of whom stay with the organization through elementary, middle and high school and into adulthood.

"That's where she made all of her friends -- friends that understand what each other is going through," Hengst said. "There's definitely a camaraderie (in Special Olympics) that's so important to have, just like for anybody else."

With services for people with disabilities already so hard to come by, Hengst said it's unfortunate that someone would consider making cuts to Special Olympics.

"It gives them a place where they can not feel judged and it teaches them that it's OK to have a disability -- it's given my sister a lot more confidence than she used to have," Hengst said. "And, it gives the community an opportunity to see them as who they are and not just their disability."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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