Our 1.5 million volunteers are the backbone of the Special Olympics movement. They are coaches, trainers, officials, event organizers, fundraiser hosts, managers, unified partners, and fans cheering in the stands. Our volunteers are all ages and their commitments can range from an afternoon to a lifetime—but everyone who donates their time are what have made our movement possible.
One lifetime volunteer is Savyna Roufeh. Savyna first supported the Special Olympics team by cheering on her cousin Liza at her bowling events. This led to being more hands-on volunteering on the event field, then becoming a coach for four different sports. Now, in addition to continued support on the field, Savyna serves on planning committees to host Special Olympics Nevada regular fundraising events.
But Savyna’s commitment goes beyond volunteerism. She is a champion for people with intellectual disabilities and an advocate for their inclusion in the workplace and community. She works at T-Mobile as a marketing manager in Las Vegas, and has become a leading voice within her work community for diversity and inclusion. Her passion is contagious and she has inspired many of her colleagues to become active allies as well. Savyna regularly recruits her fellow T-Mobile employees to volunteer at Special Olympics events, an effort which has earned her the title of the Nevada Special Olympics Chapter “Volunteer of the Year”. Her work has also inspired T-Mobile to continue to partner with Special Olympics across the nation.
Savyna’s constant commitment to breaking down stereotypes for those with intellectual disabilities is the type of active allyship that will continue to lead to a more inclusive world. Below Savyna gives us a glimpse of what it means to #ChooseToInclude.
Narrator: How did you get involved with Special Olympics and start volunteering?
Savyna: I started volunteering as a day-of event volunteer while I was away at college. I knew about Special Olympics because my cousin Liza was a bowler and had participated in events, so I started as a timer at track and swim meets. When I moved back to Las Vegas after graduation, I continued my regular volunteering, but eventually decided there was more I wanted to get involved in. I started coaching for the track season—then one sport grew to four! Because of my commitment to the program at a local level, I have been asked to participate in other opportunities in the greater Las Vegas area like the Polar Plunge committee, where myself and a full team of Special Olympics volunteers helped execute one of the biggest fundraisers of the year. Moral of the story—Special Olympics is what you want it to be and through the organization, I’ve learned that helping people is my life’s purpose.
Narrator: What do you enjoy most about being a coach for Special Olympics?
Savyna: The bonds that I’ve made are priceless to me. The athletes I coach and the volunteers I train with every weekend are an extension of my family. I also enjoy seeing progress and growth in the athletes. When we tackle goals together, it is fulfilling for everyone.
Narrator: In your personal experience, what would surprise your co-workers about the skills people with ID possess and can contribute to the workplace?
Savyna: People with intellectual disabilities contribute a different dynamic and perspective to the workplace. I have moments where athletes will astonish me with comments about a subject I would have never thought of. Having volunteered with those with ID, I have learned how to be an active listener, apply empathy in applicable situations and practice patience with different groups of people in my day to day. But it doesn’t stop at my own personal growth, I also work to share my learnings with my coworkers at T-Mobile, so I can play an active role in the company’s mission of an inclusive culture.
Narrator: How did volunteering for Special Olympics and serving as a coach help you in your career?
Savyna: Being able to talk about my involvement with Special Olympics at T-Mobile has grown my career in numerous ways. I am now connected to a group of other employee volunteers across the nation that can share their passion for the organization with me. As a marketer, the networking aspect within my company has been so valuable.
Because my work team knows I am involved in S.O., I have received additional opportunities like being asked to be on the board of T-Mobile’s Access for Disabilities employee network group. There are also a lot of skills that I take from coaching that I can apply in the workplace. Traits like being bold and thinking big—are all traits I have learned through my S.O. volunteerism that also resemble the T-Mobile work culture.
Narrator: What makes you proud to work for T-Mobile? (or maybe you can add a question that’s speaks to your D&I practices)
Savyna: The T-Mobile culture is all about encouraging employees to be themselves and giving people tools that they can use to help impact local communities. T-Mobile matches each hour I volunteer with $10 to the charity I am working with. They also have various grant opportunities to help fund volunteer opportunities with charities in our communities. I also love that there is a culture of openness and that I can talk about my volunteering with coworkers (and that they’re actually interested!). Because of this, I’ve been able to bring coworkers to volunteer and have exposed more people to S.O.
The T-Mobile leadership is not only supportive of finding ways to give back—but it is encouraged! The company sees the value in not only how volunteering helps the community, but how it grows the individual employee on a personal level.
Narrator: How do you think organizations can benefit from hiring people with intellectual disabilities?
Savyna: Hiring a diverse workforce is of course, just simply the right thing to do, but it is also beneficial for organizations because they gain new perspectives and can better understand the needs of the diverse customers they are trying to serve—many of whom might have similar intellectual disabilities.
Narrator: How do you think employees can benefit from working with people with ID?
Savyna: There are so many benefits to working with people with ID. Through all the work I have done with Special Olympics, I still continue to grow and learn from the people I work with. I have found that they can teach us much more about acceptance and inclusion—having battled the “label” of what it means to have a disability their entire lives. In fact, the concept of “disabling the label” is the mission of/ our T-Mobile Access for Disabilities employee network group. The group sees that the more open dialogue we have with those who are disabled, the more we can create a better understanding for all employees.
Narrator: What are things people can do to be more accepting and inclusive of all people in their lives?
Savyna: Be patient, open-minded and enter the situation with the idea that you will learn something while impacting someone else. It’s okay to be inquisitive! If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask. Ignorance sets us back, so speak up and stand up when you feel something can be hurtful to others. Everyone is fighting battles, whether you know it or not, so just be nice to people. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind!
Narrator: As a coach and mentor—what message would you like to share with Special Olympics Athletes and other people with ID as they compete, look for employment, and advocate for themselves?
Savyna: Continue to be fearless! You are more powerful than you think and you have the power to change lives. Something I always tell my athletes is to have fun and be confident in all that you do with Special Olympics, your community and when you are at job interviews. It will always work out for you the way it is supposed to and you are #1 if you believe you are.
From China to the United States, Ghana to Singapore, Australia to Paraguay, Ireland to India, our volunteers are helping to bring out the champion in every Special Olympics athlete. Special Olympics would not exist today—and could not have been created—without the time, energy, commitment and enthusiasm of our volunteers. We owe so much to Savyna and the millions of people who find the time to make the world a more inclusive place!!