Special Olympics Hawaii began taking shape in 1968 — the same year the movement for children and adults with intellectual disabilities was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and summer games were staged in Chicago. This year, the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary is being celebrated locally, nationally and internationally.
“Locally, we just celebrated our 50th annual State Summer Games with a tribute to and from our athletes at the opening ceremonies,” said Dan Epstein, who was recently promoted to the Special Olympics Hawaii post of chief operating officer.
The games were preceded by an ambitious torch run that started in April with a group of Special Olympic representatives and law enforcement officers hiking to the Kilauea summit area to light the “Flame of Hope.” The U.S. Coast Guard ferried the flame from Hawaii island to Maui, Kauai and Molokai for torch runs to competitions. When it landed on Oahu, some 1,000 law enforcement runners accompanied the torch from Fort DeRussy to the University of Hawaii at Manoa during opening ceremonies for the state games held late last month.
Among other anniversary festivities in the works: an international celebration, July 17-21, in Chicago to commemorate the first competition — held five decades ago at Soldier Field. On July 20 and 21, Epstein noted, landmarks around the world will “light up for inclusion” in Special Olympics’ signature red hue. In Honolulu, Aloha Tower and the IBM building are slated to take part.
A Connecticut native, Epstein first became involved with Special Olympics as a volunteer basketball team coach while a student at the University of Virginia. He moved to Hawaii shortly after college, and has been with Special Olympics Hawaii for 25 years. Previously, he served as vice president of sports and sports marketing.
“Once we make it through this year,” Epstein said, “we will need to reflect on how we can solidify the gains we’ve made with regard to new programs … and new relationships to ensure that we can continue to provide critical programs in sports, health and leadership for individuals with intellectual disabilities.”
Question: How has the organization changed since your employment began in the early 1990s?
Answer: Special Olympics continues to evolve to support the rights and needs of individuals with intellectual disabilities. We continue to provide sports training and competition for over 4,000 individuals throughout Hawaii with intellectual disabilities from age 2 through 85. But we’ve also greatly expanded in other areas.
We have over 50 Unified Champion Schools (in Hawaii), which support inclusion; Unified Sports (an initiative that brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team to compete); and inclusive leadership and acceptance/ anti-bullying campaigns for general and special education students.
Also, we are heavily involved in providing health screenings, health promotion and fitness opportunities for our athletes and their families. And we continue to provide opportunities for our athletes to take leadership roles both within and outside of Special Olympics.
Q: Earlier this year, Special Olympics athletes and others held more than 250 face-to-face meetings with members of Congress in an effort to rally support for expanding Unified Champion Schools and Unified Sports programs across the nation. How did that go?
A: We receive some funding through the federal Department of Education to support Unified Champion Schools. The face-to-face meetings, which included Special Olympics athletes as well as staff members and families, were critical in explaining to Congress members the impact of the programs.
… The Unified Champion Schools approach incorporates Special Olympics sports, leadership and related activities that empower youth to be change agents in their communities. This is a paradigm shift from a focus on events, to that of a whole school movement for inclusion.
Special education and general education students alongside educators and administrators are encouraged to collaborate to create supportive, inclusive classrooms as well as schoolwide activities and opportunities for growth and success for all.
Q: Those meetings also included a call for supporting inclusive health initiatives?
A: Globally and locally, Special Olympics provides health services for the most underserved. Despite severe need and higher health risks, people with intellectual disabilities are often denied basic health care and services and are frequently among the most vulnerable populations in any country.
Special Olympics Health was created in 1997 with Healthy Athletes, and since then we have provided thousands of health screenings and trained dozens of health care professionals to improve access to quality health care in Hawaii.
(We’ve) partnered with numerous community organizations to break down barriers to health and other obstacles faced by people with intellectual disabilities. This past year Special Olympics Hawaii was recognized among the global leaders within Special Olympics Health as a Healthy Community. This was in acknowledgment of our efforts towards creating year-round access to quality health care, robust “Healthy Athlete” screenings, fitness and walking programs, and a commitment to finding follow-up care for our local athletes who need it.
Over the years, Special Olympics health programs have improved the health of our athletes. In many cases, they have profoundly changed — or saved — their lives. But we also recognize we have a lot more work to do.
Q: How much funding does Special Olympics Hawaii need to cover costs?
A: We need to raise approximately $2.3 million a year to cover all of our expenses, which allows us to be able to provide sports training and competition opportunities to all of our athletes completely free of charge, year-round. One of our challenges is that the more success we have with our programs — whether it’s greater participation, more opportunities or new initiatives — the more we have to raise each year.
Q: The Special Olympics Torch Run was established in 1981. Hawaii’s version, which launched five years later, has generated nearly $7.3 million in fundraising?
A: The Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) … raises funds in a variety of different ways to support the athletes of Special Olympics. The actual Torch Run, raises thousands of dollars every year on all islands through an entry fee. In addition, Law Enforcement Torch Run in Hawaii raises funds for Special Olympics Hawaii through events such as “Cop On Top,” “Tip a Cop” and the Law Enforcement Canoe Regatta.
Q: Twenty-two Hawaii athletes are on the roster for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, July 1- 6 in Seattle. How do they prep?
A: Team Hui O Hawaii has been working hard for the past nine months. … The athletes and teams have been training four to five days a week in their respective sports, and had a training camp at the University of Hawaii earlier this year. To qualify for selection, teams or athletes had to win a gold medal in their respective division at the qualifying competition in Hawaii last year.
We divide athletes and teams into divisions based on age, gender and ability level. … Athletes and teams from all ability levels have the chance to earn a gold medal and be eligible for selection to USA Games. Hui O Hawaii is made up of a basketball team from Honokaa on Hawaii island; a soccer team from Central Oahu; and track athletes from Kauai. We also have a Unified duo from Maui High School participating in a “Youth Leadership Experience.”
Experiences like this one are provided at no cost to our athletes or their families. For some of our athletes, this trip will be their very first time traveling outside of Hawaii.
Q: What do you find most rewarding or enjoyable about your work?
A: I feel incredibly lucky to have found a career within the Special Olympics movement. I believe that Special Olympics truly makes a difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, and in the lives of their families. I’ve also participated in and loved sports since I was young, and at our core we are a sports organization.
It’s a privilege to work with an energized and committed staff, devoted families, over 10,000 volunteers a year — and with the amazing athletes of Special Olympics Hawaii.