Kelly Moore- Belmont Abbey College Senior & 2014 Special Olympics Mecklenburg County Fall Semester Intern
In her own words:
Without any prior experience of interacting with people who have intellectual disabilities, I randomly decided I wanted to volunteer with Special Olympics in 2011. I was a freshman at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, NC when I emailed the local coordinator for Special Olympics Mecklenburg County and asked if the soccer team needed some volunteers for that fall season. Before I knew it, I was spending every fall Saturday morning of my college career at the soccer field with the Special Olympics athletes. In my first year, I contributed as just a volunteer. For the next year, I assumed the vacant role of head coach, and maintained that position for the past three years. When I finished this last season as head coach for the Mecklenburg County soccer team, one of my athletes made me realize just how special our time together really was when he said, “You know, our soccer team, we’re like a family.”
Students at my college noticed I wasn’t around on Saturdays and started asking me where I was every Saturday morning. When I told them I coached a Special Olympics soccer team, they were always so surprised that I was doing this as a college student, unaware that they too could get involved. It was difficult to get Belmont Abbey students to Saturday practices because of the 45 minute long car drive but I kept getting asked if there were other opportunities in Special Olympics they could help out with. I loved their interest so I decided to bring Special Olympics to the college students and established a Project UNIFY chapter at Belmont Abbey.
Since establishing a Project UNIFY chapter in 2012, Belmont Abbey has hosted three different competition events on campus – two for soccer and a flag football event as well. Each event has had between two and six Special Olympics teams participate. The first competition was a soccer tournament with four local teams present. The athletic teams from Belmont Abbey were each assigned a Special Olympics team to cheer for. The college students created and decorated posters for individual athletes, enthusiastically cheered them on, and donned their team’s colors too. Even though this was two years ago, I know some of my soccer athletes still have their posters with their names and numbers on it. The first tournament was a big success! My soccer team, peer students, and the college administration immediately began asking me when Special Olympics athletes would return to Belmont Abbey. In the fall of 2014, they returned for the same soccer tournament, but this time six soccer teams competed. Flag football also came to campus in 2014 (photos) with two Unified Sports teams playing. One team was represented Gaston County and the other Mecklenburg County. Unified sports teams consist of Special Olympics athletes playing along with people without intellectual disabilities. The Mecklenburg County team comprised of Project UNIFY high school students from East Mecklenburg High School teamed with Special Olympics Mecklenburg County athletes. The event was great practice for the two teams who both went on to compete in a Special Olympics Intramural Flag Football competition in Maryland. Several Belmont Abbey athletic teams including women’s lacrosse, wrestling and track & field all came out in heavy support of the two Unified teams! See the excitement generated during the starting lineups in this on field video!
At each of these on-campus tournaments, the atmosphere was like none other. There was so much excitement and enthusiasm! It was contagious! The Belmont Abbey athletes loved being involved and the Special Olympics athletes all wore perma-grins. The Special Olympics parents were overjoyed at the unique opportunity for their sons/daughters. The college administration was very impressed by the positive interactions they witnessed.
Through events like these and word of mouth, there are now four Belmont Abbey students coaching sports for Mecklenburg County athletes! And we went from two people being interested in a Project UNIFY chapter to the entire athletic department and multiple campus clubs being involved today. The snowball effect was amazing to witness. And most importantly we went from just a few college students knowing about Special Olympics to educating and involving hundreds.
In the fall of 2014, I accepted an opportunity to work with Special Olympics NC as the Special Olympics NC Development and Programming intern. I became more acquainted with the goals of Project UNIFY and realized how powerful this initiative can be for those involved. My internship made me believe in the mission of Special Olympics all the more, and through these different Project Unify events I organized at the college, I believe other people became committed to the Special Olympics mission as well.