The office of Special Olympics Australia in North Ryde, New South Wales is over 9,600 miles away from the headquarters of Special Olympics North Carolina in Morrisville, NC. That distance did not faze Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools volunteers and UNC Chapel Hill students Brock Schoenwald and Annie Dempsey.
Both Robertson Scholars, Schoenwald is the co-president of the Special Olympics College Club and Dempsey is an active member of their executive team.
This summer, the pair traveled on a two-week trip to North Ryde, a suburb of Sydney, to shadow the volunteers, leaders and athletes that compose Special Olympics Australia. The trip, made possible by the Robertson Scholars Program at UNC Chapel Hill, allowed both students to explore the principles of nonprofit leadership.
“We both knew we wanted to do something with Special Olympics after college,” said Schoenwald. “We wanted to see how the organization operated and could be different around the world.”
Already strong and growing, SO Australia is setting its sights on increasing brand awareness across the country and expanding into school communities.
“They don’t have any university programs right now, so one of their big strategies for this year is becoming more integrated in the school system,” said Dempsey. “Right now, SO Australia will visit schools and deliver sessions for students during the school day in Victoria, a place where they are really growing. Brand awareness is not as strong in Australia for Special Olympics and getting into schools is a good way to build that awareness.”
With many SO Australia volunteers and staff being unfamiliar with the full scope of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, they were interested in hearing how they could implement its programs in schools, especially in the collegiate level.
In the movement to increase brand awareness, SO Australia is seeking to reach more underserved, rural areas where individuals with intellectual disabilities are unaware of the sports programs available to them. In Melbourne, the organization is launching a tour in which athlete ambassadors and law enforcement officers travel for weeks delivering field days and sports activities to different communities.
This program speaks to the importance of athlete leadership in Australia and its role in supporting the Special Olympics brand worldwide.
“The Law Enforcement Torch Run is piloting this program and will be looking at doing a similar trip through the Outback,” said Dempsey. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for athletes and they go through extensive training in public speaking to participate.”
Along with broadening the reach of Special Olympics to more rural communities, SO Australia also hopes to make their Young Athletes program more of a priority.
Dempsey and Schoenwald attended a Young Athletes practice at a nursery where coaches visited regularly to deliver sessions in basic movements and sports activities.
“There were about seven athletes in the group,” said Dempsey. “The coach was a new volunteer and it was an interesting way to see how the Young Athletes program is incorporated in a smaller environment.”
SO Australia is divided into different states and athletes represent their state in club, regional, state and national levels in a variety of events. Leading their organization is CEO Corene Strauss.
“She was really willing to talk to us about how we could connect North Carolina to Australia,” said Schoenwald. “She recently met Tim Shriver and was really moved by his mission and how he is leading Special Olympics. For me, at least, I have only been volunteering at the university level, so it was interesting to hear more of the visionary standpoint versus the day-to-day operating logistics.”
Strauss places great emphasis on understanding and incorporating varying ability levels in the realm of Special Olympics. Regarding supporting and being inclusive of athletes with autism, Strauss feels that SO Australia is making monumental strides.
“Strauss was great in talking about her role in Special Olympics and giving advice on how we can grow into our careers next year, as she has grown in her role,” said Dempsey.
With the teaching roles reversed, Schoenwald and Dempsey had the opportunity to speak to their personal experience in learning from Special Olympics North Carolina and its operations, specifically how Unified Champion Schools has claimed a special place in their own lives.
“It has been amazing to see our club grow and do a lot of great work with Special Olympics Orange County and Special Olympics North Carolina,” said Schoenwald. “It would be great to continue to promote that in their community. If it wasn’t for Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, I never would have gotten involved in Special Olympics.”
SONC President/CEO Keith L. Fishburne noted that, “Dempsey and Schoenwald exemplify the meaning of inclusivity and sharing its importance on a global level. Transcending cultural differences and continental divisions, they learned that the impact of Special Olympics continues to grow with the help of people from all walks of life.”