By Riley Fink
Our visit to the Special Olympics was certainly an enlightening experience. We met with Bryan Klopack, a Drake alum (of course), who joined us in a board room lined with photos and trophies. Among the framed pictures was one of President Kennedy meeting with the first documented person in the White House with an intellectual disability. That individual was merely a young boy. Kennedy was warmly greeting the boy, recognizing him as equal and treating him with great respect.
I thought that image was a great way to symbolize the goals of the Special Olympics, which, according to their mission statement, seek to allow disabled children and adults to “participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship.
The Special Olympics of course has a deep connection with the Kennedy family. Mr. Klopack’s story of how the organization came to be was, in my opinion, particularly powerful. Rosemary Kennedy, sister to President John F. Kennedy, was born with intellectual disabilities, and was for a great deal of time hidden from the public. The unfortunate reality of Rosemary’s scarcity stems from the belief that her existence was a blemish to the prestigious Kennedy clan. Rosemary suffered in silence, especially after she underwent a lobotomy that left her with incapacitating brain damage. It wasn’t until the early 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver, another sister to both JFK and Rosemary, published an article in the Saturday Evening Post revealing her sister’s disabilities. Eunice’s acknowledgement of her beloved sister’s disabilities most likely played a large role in shifting public opinions of intellectually disabled individuals. Rosemary and Eunice’s relationship is seen as a potential genesis of the Special Olympics, which was formed by Eunice in 1968.
Rosemary suffered in silence…
As Mr. Klopack explained more about the mission of the Special Olympics, we all quickly realized that the group deals with much more than simply sports. Their incredibly wide reach is demonstrated in their 220 chapters in 170 countries all over the world, with 110,000 competitions held each year. They work in impoverished countries to fulfill the humanitarian needs of their athletes and communities. Working to provide healthcare for those without is only one of the causes the Special Olympics is committed to.
Improving individual living situations is also among their priorities. Klopack gave the example of providing water jug carrying bags for women collecting water. Instead of balancing the containers on their head, they are able to securely place them in a bag. While this has a very practical use, it also allows the women to get home quicker to avoid danger. The Special Olympics deals with an incredible range of multi-faceted issues such as these.
The incoming Trump administration could have a significant impact on the Special Olympics. Once a year, a day is set aside to have Special Olympic athletes from all over the world meet with as many congresspersons as possible in DC. This is meant to demonstrate the value of the Special Olympics to Congress, and hopefully secure federal funding. Many congresspersons see the worth of the Special Olympics, but do not believe it should be federally funded. Klopack mentioned that the son of the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a Special Olympics athlete. One would think this would be an easy advantage in securing greater funds, yet Speaker Ryan’s Chief of Staff opposes giving federal money to the Special Olympics. Despite their best efforts to convince Washington otherwise, the organization only receives a paltry sum of $10 million annually. Whether or not President-elect Trump will place greater emphasis on the importance of the Special Olympics remains to be seen. His support or neglect could be a massive influence on the money allocated to the Special Olympics in the future.