[Over the next 10 months, NCAA Division III and Special Olympics will celebrate the tenth anniversary of a unique partnership, one that, according to the NCAA Division III website, serves as a "mutual learning experience" and works to "provide a platform for recognition of Special Olympics athletes and Division III student-athletes within their communities."]
In 2011, Dan Dutcher, the former Vice President of Division III, set out to find what could take the identity of Division III to the next level. After coming out of a comprehensive review discussing what NCAA Division III is all about, it was determined they needed to showcase that their student-athletes aren't just athletes but also active members in the community.
"I give all the credit to our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) because they were the folks at the time that approached the Division III leadership with instruction and said, ‘we'd like to identify a national community service partner’," Dutcher says about the vision of student-athletes leading the way. The organization that immediately came to the group’s mind? Special Olympics.
Dutcher emphasizes, "the educational mission of Special Olympics, the educational experience, the benefits that Special Olympics athletes accrue from their participation, but just as important the educational benefits that our student-athletes accrue when they participate in Special Olympics activities" were the selling points to make the vision a reality. With Division III being the largest collegiate sports division in the United States and Special Olympics being nationwide as well as global, it was a match made in heaven.
"What they envisioned and our membership envisions is that the partnership would be able to enhance the lives of Division III student-athletes, as well as the lives of Special Olympics athletes," says Louise McCleary, Interim Division III Vice President.
Special Olympics Unified Sports® and Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® have provided even more opportunities for the partnership’s impact to be felt by all involved.
"The opportunity for Unified participation has just greatly enhanced the value of the partnership," Dutcher says. "It just creates so much value for any given experience for both the NCAA athletes and Special Olympics athletes."
In just 10 years, NCAA Division III student-athletes have dedicated close to half a million hours to the partnership and aim to reach one million hours in the next ten years.
As a new decade of the partnership is started, there is much work left to be done. The same student-athlete vision that created the partnership 10 years ago will be instrumental in continuing to push it forward, as even more opportunities are created to bring Special Olympics athletes and NCAA Division III student-athletes together, on and off the field of play.
The Decade of Inclusion interview series will capture the past, present and future of this unique partnership. Stay tuned to hear how the lives of student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes have been impacted over time, what is happening currently, and what’s still to come.