Thirty-eight athletes from PEI attended the 2020 Special Olympics Winter Games in Thunder Bay, Ontario from February 21 – 29. They competed with more than 1,200 peer athletes from across Canada in eight disciplines and cheered on their teammates from the stands. Less than three weeks later, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, those athletes, and the 600 others served by Special Olympics PEI were cut off from the sport and wellness programs they enjoy.
Thankfully, funding through the Emergency Community Support Fund helped create bridge programs to keep those athletes connected, healthy, and active.
“For many Islanders with an intellectual disability, social isolation and anxiety are heightened, and COVID-19 increases these issues. When the pandemic shut down our physical programs, we knew that our delivery methods would need to change,” said Charity Sheehan, Executive Director at Special Olympics PEI.
Under normal operating conditions, Special Olympics PEI runs a variety of in-person programs for athletes with intellectual disabilities with a roster between the ages of two and 67. They offer sport programming in 18 disciplines, training and development opportunities, health programs, and promote leadership skills. Special Olympics programming also represents an important social opportunity for these athletes, whom for many a weekly bowling or floor hockey game is their opportunity for socializing with peers.
Sport has positive benefits for everyone, but those opportunities can make an enormous difference in the life of an athlete with an intellectual disability. By participating in sport, they’re more likely to gain employment, live independently and enjoy other positive outcomes.
When COVID-19 hit and lockdown measures were introduced, those programs had to be cancelled. Special Olympics PEI used their Facebook group to create engagement opportunities for their athletes, scheduling 30 weeks of programming including everything from online training, fitness classes, crafts, activities, even dances.
“Personal connection is a huge part of our organization,” said Sheehan. “For these athletes, Special Olympics is a social group. That opportunity to be included in other sports programs does not exist, so it’s also about inclusion and normalization. We’re old-school though, and we have a bit of an ageing athlete population so pivoting to digital programming was a challenge for sure.”
Funding received through the Emergency Community Support Fund, enabled Special Olympics PEI to adapt and create a new Wellness Champion program to engage their community, and particularly those athletes without regular access to digital programs.
The program, accessible through a hardcopy mailout kit, has four pillars related to wellness; Experiment & Create, Connect & Learn, Be active, and Build skills. Each pillar requires certain activities to be completed and tracked. Once all activities are completed participants can send their tracking forms to Special Olympics PEI and receive a Wellness Champion medal.
“It was incredible to access that kind of funding to take a dream and make it a reality in this setting,” said Sheehan. “Everyone is trying to be really creative to figure out how to get through this whole thing. Funding through the ECSF created a springboard for this program that has so much more potential to engage our athletes and anyone with an intellectual disability on PEI.”