[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 sixth 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.]
Special Olympics brings people together, even when they least expect it. For Mercy Ogutu and Britney Bautista, who live across the country from each other, Special Olympics is exactly how their connection began when they both served on the Special Olympics National Work Team together.
The Special Olympics college program National Work Team is described as “a team of appointed student leaders and athlete leaders who actively participate in a Special Olympics college program or Special Olympics College Club. This team meets to address the current needs and goals of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® University Engagement and growth of Special Olympics college programs.”
The National Work Team is "made up of amazing college leaders from various backgrounds who are dedicated to bringing the student voice to strategic planning for Special Olympics college programming while getting a hands-on experience on projects throughout the year,” says Bautista, a Special Olympics Hawaii athlete and student at The University of Hawaii- Maui College.
For Ogutu, a NCAA Division III tennis student-athlete at Trinity Washington University, the National Work Team experience was very rewarding and worthwhile. "It was really exciting getting to meet everyone around the nation," she says with a shy but excited tone in her voice. Despite Trinity Washington not having a Special Olympics club, Ogutu says that "not only did I meet amazing students, just working on the National Work Team, but also I got to learn about different activities the students can create.”
"This goal is to integrate the student and athlete voice into Unified Champion Schools programming at the college level,” Lexxi O’Brien, Specialist for University Engagement at Special Olympics, says. “Team members have played an important role in providing perspective and feedback on upcoming projects and keep us on the right track.”
Members of the National Work Team should be a current Unified partner or athlete leader at a Special Olympics college program or Special Olympics College Club and have strengths in the following areas: interpersonal skills, be a self-starter and have an interest in disability, inclusion, and education.
Those lucky enough to be a member of this group spend 1 to 3 hours a week meeting with the team, via Zoom, over email and GroupMe. That time spent together virtually creates strong bonds that can influence in-person relationships.
"If someone asked me how to get involved in Special Olympics at their college, I would say participate in volunteer opportunities," Bautista says. Ogutu adds, "since Trinity doesn't have a college club, we volunteer at a lot of local Special Olympics DC events."
Combining student and athlete voices into one message influences others to get involved with Special Olympics, leading to the rapid growth of Special Olympics college programming across America. Focus groups like the National Work Team along with key partnerships like the one with NCAA Division III student-athletes continue to push and move the needle of inclusion in a positive direction.