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Special Olympics Indiana Paves the Way with Athlete Internship Program

Part employment opportunity, part learning experience, internships are often an integral part of a person’s career development. Special Olympics Indiana saw an opportunity to provide Special Olympics athletes with this key resume and experience builder through their Athlete Leadership programming.

Athlete Leadership opportunities have opened many doors for athletes, including through Athlete Leadership University, like the one Special Olympics Indiana holds. Athletes met two weekends per year and started with the “Introduction to Athlete Leadership.” Following that, each athlete selected one of seven majors. Graduation is two to three years following the athletes’ start date.

But Special Olympics Indiana didn’t want athletes to stop learning simply because they’d graduated. Staff wanted to keep their alumni engaged and to continue providing opportunities elsewhere. Thanks to a grant opportunity, the Program began to explore what a graduate program would look like and got the chance to add an extra component. “Because of the grant, we were able to add an internship component to what we were calling the graduate program,” said Elesia Yoon, Director of Organizational Development, for Special Olympics Indiana.

Four Special Olympics athletes take a selfie.
Four Special Olympics Indiana athletes (from left to right Karen Kerr, Chelsea Davis, Melony Salla and Dorothy Zipperle) have spent the last year as interns with Special Olympics Indiana.

Special Olympics Indiana began implementing graduate-level athlete leadership programming, finding creative ways to keep things going during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each Saturday for several weeks, they hosted a two- to four-hour online seminar. “That helped us explore what topics were good and what extra professional development skills that we weren’t offering through our traditional in-person Athlete Leadership University,” Yoon says.

The internship program followed shortly thereafter.

The criteria were “impactful but simple” explains Yoon, saying that each candidate had to have “graduated from our Athlete Leadership University or an accredited higher education institution.”

At first, they had a dozen interested athletes and six who finished the application process. When the staff completed the review stage and followed the interview process, the final four Special Olympics Indiana athlete interns were selected.

Each intern had a separate role: Chelsea Davis worked with volunteer recruitment, Melony Salla worked with Challenging Athletes to Maximize Potential and Skill, Karen Kerr was with Athlete Leadership University and Dorie Zipperle focused on technology. Each intern chose a project and focused on that project throughout the internship.

Zipperle didn’t expect a corporate-stye interview but says “it wasn’t as tough as she thought,” and while she was nervous, she remained herself and did great. Hearing a giggle in her voice, Kerr says, “I was panicking because I got the questions sent on a Sunday, and my interview was that Tuesday.”

Salla explains how each intern had a different schedule that worked best for them. Not only was she an intern but she also has a full-time job, so most of her work needed to be done on the weekends. “I tended to try to work an hour a day in the evenings or on the weekends. That can be anything from answering emails or making Zoom meetings or attending Zoom meetings [in order to] gather data and information for my internship,” Salla says.

And Davis can relate, she met with her mentors on days she was off from her full-time employment. “We’d schedule meetings, and we work around both of our schedules and try to work on whatever I need to work on from our project. [I also reach] out to them as well if I need any help with my internship.”

It’s an opportunity for athletes to gain valuable professional experience and get paid for it. Special Olympics Indiana is blazing a trail that they would love to see other Special Olympics Programs implement into their initiatives.

“Being able to have these four wonderful people share their ideas and leadership skills with us has been super helpful and important. I hope that it will continue and that we’ll be able to grow and allow a lot more athletes to have their voice be heard and share their skills with the whole state,” Savannah Vaughn, Manager of Individual Sports for Special Olympics Indiana and one of the internship mentors, says. “I think it’s just something we can’t do without anymore. I think we’ve started a trend.”

For Salla, the internship was everything Special Olympics Indiana had intended it to be. It taught her so much more than she thought it would. For the length of the internship, she also had a full-time job. Because of that, she learned a lot about time management. From the start, she quickly learned that plan A and plan B don’t always work and that sometimes you need to keep adjusting.

Her project focused on the level 1 level M athletes who are in motorized wheelchairs. “I picked our Summer Games to start as my big project,” Salla says. “They’ve never had an awards area and their staging was kind of chaotic.”

So, her mission was to make sure the staging area flowed nicely and that the athletes were highlighted for their athletic accomplishments in the best way possible. Seeing the smile on their faces and the finished product was Salla’s favorite part. It had been time well spent.

With the first athlete internship class coming to an end this fall, Special Olympics Indiana continues to seek opportunities to expand Athlete Leadership to levels the global movement once only dreamed of. The athlete internship opportunity is helping to set each intern up to use what they learn as they seek meaningful employment in the workforce and our society gets one step closer to being truly inclusive.

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