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Community Impact

NCAA DIII Student-Athletes Take What They Learned Volunteering with Special Olympics in College and Use it in Their Everyday Life

The Special Olympics movement has an impact on people that does not go unnoticed. Whether it be as an athlete, a volunteer, a Unified partner, or as a family member, once you get involved you are hooked. For Domenic Fraboni, a former NCAA DIII football player at Concordia College and a 2013 – 2016 National SAAC member, the moment he was hooked is easy to pinpoint.

A Special Olympics athlete wearing a yellow shirt smiles at the camera. His arm is around a volunteer's shoulders.
Domenic Fraboni (right) learned so much from his time volunteering with Special Olympics while in college that he still uses in life today.

"It all happened at that first pancake breakfast," Fraboni says about his first experience with Special Olympics. He was immediately taken by "the authenticity and generosity from everyone that was involved from the athletes to the families to all of the volunteers. It was something I was craving."

Following that breakfast, Fraboni, who served as vice-chair of the 2015 – 16 SAAC, continued to learn valuable lessons through his involvement with Special Olympics, including how to celebrate people and their differences.

He is now a physical therapist and social media influencer. In his work, he always remembers to include the lessons he learned from Special Olympics. With a giant smile on his face, he says, "I feel like I can talk about this for hours," when asked about how he incorporates inclusion into his practice.

"When people ask what my favorite class was in my doctorate program, I tell them coaching Special Olympics," Fraboni says with much pride echoing from his voice. "I learned more from that on how to be a good provider and how to meet somebody in the room wherever they're at than any other class."

Having worked with athletes that span all types of abilities, he finds it easier to understand a single person and credits it all to the experiences from Special Olympics.

Cat Lanigan, a former DIII lacrosse player at Juniata College, who was on the SAAC from 2018 – 2021, had a similar experience to Fraboni.

"Every year the NCAA convention hosts a Unified event with Special Olympics and for a lot of people that's their first experience with Special Olympics, so it was so exciting to see people being able to play Unified Sports with the athletes," Lanigan says. "Everyone walked away from these events like 'wow this was so much fun. I have to figure out how to do this on my campus.'"

Every year Lanigan's college would host a Special Olympics Pennsylvania competition and it would prompt almost every student-athlete on campus to volunteer.

She remembers how that single event would change the entire dynamic on campus. "It really changed the culture in the athlete department, in classes, and suddenly we would be talking about the home run hit over the weekend," Lanigan says.

It also impacted her outside of athletics.

In her current role as the Global Youth Engagement Fellow at Special Olympics, she supports Unified schools across the globe, government partnerships, and virtual events, bringing the spirit of inclusion to the next generation of students.

Both Fraboni and Lanigan continue to use what they learned volunteering with Special Olympics as college students in their everyday life. The takeaways from those interactions help guide their actions today.

Lanigan’s favorite quote comes from Mrs. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics, "by your presence you send a message of inclusion and a message that you can be brave enough to do this and show up the way you do and include people the way you do."

For Fraboni, his life’s message is clear, saying, "see my disability, discourage my participation, and discount me," with all the dis's crossed out so instead, it says, "see my ability, encourage my participation and count me in."

The 10-year partnership between NCAA Division III and Special Olympics has impacted everyone differently, but the common thread of inclusion gets people hooked for life. Those individuals continue to make an impact on their community even when they step away from the field of play.

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