INSIDE SOSC: Athlete Leaders ‘Spread Special Olympics Power’

Special Olympics San Diego athlete Sophie Demos sees value in athlete-led council participation. After all, who better than the athletes served to give direct feedback.

She is one of 12 members on Special Olympics San Diego’s Athlete Input Council.

“When the [athletes] have input, we help make it better and bigger for Special Olympics,” Sophie said.

“It helps me because it’s like a leadership role. Other people look up to you and they ask you, ‘What does this position mean to you?’ They want to be (part of) that, so we try to help them be the next person enrolled. You’re being a leader and spreading the Special Olympics power.”

Special Olympics Southern California athletes have more than just a wide array of sports available to them year-round. They can also participate in the Athlete Leadership Program, where they build up their life skills and amplify their voice. As one aspect of the program, the Athlete Input Council (AIC) allows individuals with intellectual disabilities to learn and apply skills beyond sports and seek opportunities off the courts and playing fields.

The program encourages athletes to pursue roles as coaches, officials, team captains, spokespeople, and Board and committee members.

WeAreSOSC.org virtually attended Special Olympics San Diego’s Oct. 17 meeting. Its AIC is comprised of Sam Blake (president); Charles Martindale (vice president); Sophie Demos (secretary); Trent Lewis (treasurer); Thomas Selbe (time keeper); recruiters Lindsey Newman and Ryan Derleth; and members Janice Brooks, Chris Hurn, Evan Karr, Heather McEldowney, and Rob Repass.

“We want to make sure everything runs smoothly,” Charles said.

The athletes on San Diego’s AIC have a range of experience, as some have competed with SOSC for less than a decade and others like Sam for more than 40 years in the organization. While there aren’t term limits for members in the council, elections are held every two years for leadership positions. No one remains in the same position for more than one consecutive term.

Also, no more than two members who play on the same team are allowed to be on the AIC at the same time. This is an effort to represent as many athletes in the county,

The council itself gives athletes a voice in recommending a course of action in various facets of the year-round sports training and athletic competition program, while also reporting potential important issues from their respective areas and communities. For instance, the agenda from February’s two-hour Q1 meeting included time to provide feedback on the completed Floor Hockey Season over the 2019/2020 winter.

Over the course of the one-hour meeting, the group discussed SOSC’s 2021 sports plan, continuing to engage its Unified Champion Schools in the area, the Law Enforcement Torch Run, and an end-of-the-year online fundraiser where they would challenge other regional AICs.

Lynne Allen, Special Olympics San Diego’s Senior Manager of Sports and Programs, fielded questions from the AIC as she explained the various phases of the Return to Activity Plan, as all of SOSC continues to navigate through the pandemic.

Each AIC member had two minutes to give feedback and ask questions. Charles kicked off the discussion, asking for clarification on how long athletes who play indoor sports would have to wait to rejoin their teams. Don Culbertson, San Diego’s Manager of Sports and Programs, assisted Lynne and told Charles the goal was to at least bring teams back together virtually via online practices and sports-specific activity challenges, if a particular season does not get played in a traditional sense.

“So, we’re trying to make it an alternative,” Don said. “It’s still going to be getting outside on your own and doing some training drills.”

Meanwhile, Sam spearheaded the Unified Champion School discussion, relaying some of the schools’ concerns over remaining engaged despite limitations on events and gatherings.

“[The schools] want some other ideas coming from our council to improve themselves and make them feel more happy…until their competitions happen again,” Sam told the group.

That led to an idea to create a video message to send to schools, showcasing the importance of inclusion, and a vote followed to see who was interested in participating in the video.

Prior to the pandemic, the San Diego council met in-person quarterly; since May, they adjusted to monthly virtual meetings.

Without a competition calendar, the meetings “have shifted to connecting and supporting each other,” said senior development manager Amanda Baumann, one of three Special Olympics San Diego staff members in attendance who oversee and help coordinate the council.

The San Diego AIC has also been proactive in recent years by creating, hosting and planning the annual LETR Appreciation event for the region.

“(The event is) a potluck lunch at a local park where officers and our AIC members can hang out and play unified bocce,” Amanda added.

Currently, it is one of three athlete-led councils within SOSC. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties are the other two, with hopes of creating similar groups in other areas of Southern California in the future. In fact, representatives from Special Olympics Kern County also attended the meeting and have hopes to create its own council.

“Kern County has been interested in starting an Athlete Input Council for a while now and after attending San Diego’s AIC meeting we cannot wait to start hosting our own meetings!” said Veronica Smiddle, Special Olympics Kern County’s Development Coordinator. “We have many awesome athlete leaders that are ready to take on more responsibility and share their suggestions and creative ideas for staying connected virtually with fellow athletes and coaches.”

Actively engaged throughout the meeting was Bakersfield athlete Rudy Briseno, who is eager to add Kern County athletes to the fold of leaders looking to make a difference.

“An Athlete Input Council can help improve our region by getting our teams more involved. If there are issues we need to address, we can talk about it together before problems escalate,” he said.

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