In San Salvador, El Salvador, a series of community events are attracting the interest of the public. Hundreds of participants, volunteers, and spectators are coming together in public spaces to enjoy recreational activities and meet new people. These events create moments of joy and education within the community, especially as the purpose of the events becomes clear to newcomers: to celebrate Special Olympics athletes in public spaces. Over the past six months, Special Olympics El Salvador has held four sports festivals, all open to the public, where Special Olympics El Salvador athletes showcase their broad range of skills and lead participants in Unified activities.
At these dedicated events for Unified Sports and activities, Special Olympics El Salvador athletes and their supporters celebrate the talents of people of all abilities. Furthermore, people with and without intellectual disabilities work closely together toward a common goal on the playing field, learning from each other in the process. Through sharing such collaborative experiences, Special Olympics athletes are gaining confidence and becoming more empowered to advocate for themselves. Meanwhile, members of the community are introduced to Special Olympics programming and the message of inclusion in an interactive and welcoming setting.
Paola, a project coordinator for Special Olympics El Salvador, said the idea for the festivals began with a desire to involve people with intellectual disabilities in public spaces, such as community venues, that are traditionally occupied by people without intellectual disabilities.
“[The festivals] allow us to carry the message of inclusion to help others understand intellectual disabilities and show it’s not impossible for this population to have the same opportunities, participate in all aspects of life, and develop their capacities to the fullest,” said Paola.
To date, each of the festivals has centered around a unique activity as its theme, including a variety of sports as well as dancing. To set up each event, Special Olympics El Salvador draws on its local relationships to source resources, gather volunteers, and recruit spectators for the events. To ensure enough space for all the festivals, Special Olympics El Salvador collaborated with the office of San Salvador’s mayor to secure a large public bike path as event space. Special Olympics El Salvador also partners with a public high school to use its facilities, allowing athletes and partners to participate in a variety of sports.
Special Olympics athletes say the public festivals allow them to share their stories and skills with new people. Jennifer, an athlete from San Salvador, attended a festival focused on dance and aerobics. She loved the festival and hopes more such events can be held in the community. “My favorite part of the festival was that I felt happy and relaxed,” said Jennifer. “I love dancing and meeting new people . . . and I like that people outside [Special Olympics] got involved because they were attracted to the cause and what we shared.”
In addition to generating support for Unified Schools by local organizations, the events spread awareness of the importance of inclusion to people who previously never interacted with people with intellectual disabilities. Rodrigo, a coach at a local football club, had his first experience participating in a Special Olympics event through volunteering at one of the festivals. He shared that the experience was special, and it ultimately inspired him to be more involved with Special Olympics El Salvador.
“I saw how natural the interactions between Special Olympics athletes and partners were in the sports activities, and it made everyone feel so good. The experience was so fun and full of laughs, hugs, and sincere competition that [it] really hits you and makes you want to do more to help in the inclusion of all these athletes,” said Rodrigo.
Through these festivals, Special Olympics El Salvador has seen immense improvements in the self-esteem and socialization skills of athletes. Special Olympics El Salvador plans to continue to organize these festivals in collaboration with more athletes, partners, and supporters. With the participation of local organizations and schools, as well as through reaching new people to join the movement for inclusion, Special Olympics El Salvador hopes to expand its impact to as many people as possible. Most importantly, Special Olympics El Salvador is happy its initiative has created spaces where all people feel welcomed.
“My favorite part of the festivals has been seeing the coexistence of people with and without intellectual disabilities. . . . I’m thrilled to have helped create this inclusive space,” said Paola.