On Monday, March 8, Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) joins in the celebration of the women’s rights movement, recognized as International Women’s Day. This year’s campaign theme is “Choose to Challenge,” an apt theme for the many woman of SONC choosing to challenge the status quo by inspiring inclusive change. Championing the call for inclusive health for Special Olympics athletes in North Carolina is SONC’s very own health team, a powerhouse of strong women.
SONC’s first-ever Health Director Ellen Fahey leads health and fitness initiatives, addressing a key organizational priority of overall “Health, Fitness and Nutrition.” Special Olympics’ research has shown that people with intellectual disabilities are consistently left out of health systems that are ill-equipped to diagnose and treat them. To combat this, Fahey and her team of Health Messengers are taking matters into their own hands.
“To have such a strong core of women driving the health programming, where women are so often underrepresented, they feel strong and motivated and want others to feel the same way,” said Fahey. “It’s a cool thing to be a part of, to see women grow together and support each other.”
SONC athletes Annie Tane of Chapel Hill, Megan Czejkowski of Raleigh and Alyson Sheedy of New Bern each completed a four-week virtual training program to become North Carolina’s first-ever credited Health Messengers by SONC’s governing body, Special Olympics International. A Health Messenger is a Special Olympics athlete who has been trained to serve as a health and wellness leader, educator, advocate and role model within their Special Olympics communities and the community at large.
“With these Health Messengers, we are able to build awareness about this group we are not including, we get to open people’s eyes about how to be inclusive and teach medical and health care professionals how to be inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities,” said Fahey. “They are the ones experiencing it every day and people want to hear from those facing barriers and inequities to learn how they can do better.”
Each choosing their own platform to promote health among fellow athletes, these North Carolina Health Messengers are ambassadors for change, choosing the challenge they’d like to confront.
“One thing I’ve been trying to work on is showing athletes how to make different foods, like healthy snacks,” said Tane. “With Partner Up Power Up, I’ve been helping with Wellness Wednesday, we get to learn different stuff like how to take care of ourselves and what is important.”
SONC’s Partner Up Power Up 10-week, at-home fitness program, which launched in the fall returned for a spring session March 2 – May 14, providing opportunities for athletes to be leaders in health and wellness initiatives. Tane is one of those leaders, making a difference, even from her home.
“I took on this role to be able to help people,” said Tane. “It’s a good challenge for you for you to learn how to become a health leader and a good opportunity for you to grow.”
Another leader in the Partner Up Power Up program, Sheedy uses her role to demonstrate exercises through videos she shares on the Partner Up Power Up Facebook page.
“My role is to keep people exercising and keep people healthy,” said Sheedy. “I get other people that want to do the same stuff that I’m doing, like the same exercises. I want to teach and show people how to be fit.”
Czejkowski has also worked to produce a series of informative health videos, “Healthy Minutes with Megan,” teaching athletes about the importance of establishing healthy habits, such as proper hydration and stretching techniques.
“I want to be healthy, I want to help other people be healthy,” said Czejkowski. “We want to keep a healthy lifestyle, learn ways to be healthy, balancing out how much you eat and good exercises. I want to be a voice for those who want to hear my voice.”
Therein lies the pinnacle challenge, making health resources accessible and inclusive for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Equipped with a team of motivated women, SONC seeks to break down that barrier, one voice at a time.
“Our Health Messengers are making the biggest impact and saying why they should be included in health and wellness resources,” said Fahey. “Saying, ‘Hey, we are here and this is how you can work with us on how to get the health care we need,’ it’s building that awareness.”
Reshaping the way society regards health and its accessibility, SONC’s women-led health leadership team chooses the challenge of bringing an equilibrium to this long-standing system of inequity, resounding voices from a few women, echoing a contagious energy.