[From August 2021 to May 2022, The Decade of Inclusion interview series will capture the past, present and future of the partnership between Division III and Special Olympics. This is the fifth article in the 10-part series. 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.]
When former Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) commissioner Chris Ragsdale and former football official and retired Special Olympics Indiana CEO and President Mike Furnish realized the love they shared for Special Olympics, all the pieces started falling together.
HCAC Commissioner Jay Jones has been with the conference for just over two years and says from what Ragsdale and Furnish created, the partnership has just “grown and matured,” also adding that “the rest of the league and its members have bought in.” Without that support, the partnership may never have found this much success.
“My job is to not mess up the great work that they did and the enthusiasm I found for the Special Olympics partnership when I came into the job,” Jones says.
Throughout the state of Indiana, the conference continues to encourage all its student-athletes to get involved with Special Olympics Unified Sports® events. And the conference’s ability to pivot and change direction when the global pandemic hit sent a strong and impactful message, telling the story of how dedicated they are and just how big the partnership with Special Olympics can be.
“We weren’t able to do the 2021 Unified Bowling Championships, but we were able to do Unified Trivia,” Mike Hasch, Special Olympics Indiana Director of Unified Champion Schools, says about the impact of COVID-19. “And because of so much positive feedback from the HCAC student-athletes and SAAC members, we now have created our second event in partnership with the HCAC.”
“We have always talked about how coming together was our beginning, us keeping together has been progress and then working together has been such great success for the both of us,” Hasch says with much pride echoing from his voice.
Abigail Newkirk, a former HCAC student-athlete and former SAAC board member, mirrors Hasch’s words, saying, “the Special Olympics trivia night was just awesome, and the virtual component just didn’t put a damper on the night.”
It's a night that is normally filled with excitement: the HCAC Special Olympics Unified Bowling Championship is one of the biggest events of the year.
“This event predates me,” Jones says with a laugh. Giving credit to Ragsdale and Furnish, Jones says Ragsdale’s intentions were clear, “every single part of the event just needs to be another conference championship.”
And they were successful, from the trophies handed out to the conference recognition. “It raises the level of gravity and importance,” Jones says. He points the success to the original “buy in” with the partnership.
While things have looked different recently, it has forced the conference and Special Olympics to get creative and set new standards for the future. “We are now having some of our HCAC coaches meetings at the Special Olympics Indiana office,” Jones says, following up with, “it drives home for our coaches the importance of the relationship but also reminds them that it’s a partnership and we help each other.”
That importance goes far beyond the competition floor. “Some of the student-athletes are following up later, keeping in touch with them [Special Olympics athletes] and still continue to include them [Special Olympics athletes] in some outside events,” Hasch says. Special Olympics Indiana receives so much positive feedback from leaders watching Special Olympics athletes develop relationships with student-athletes in the HCAC and that’s what “brings the smiles knowing that the work and effort we put into this is absolutely worth it,” he continues to say.
It’s a partnership that started with a shared love of Special Olympics and one that has expanded to what it is now. It gives Special Olympics athletes an identity. It provides them with the tools to create valuable friendships and a sense of not being invisible. And it continues to grow year after year.