It is within the soul of every person to be great. There is an inward clarion call to give and to grow — to know that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
Many answer the call through personal achievement, but several students at Utah State University have turned outward and served in the university’s Special Olympic charter.
Alexander Cook, the program’s director of games, said “I’m trying to make my contribution to something larger. It’s one of the best things that I’ve done at USU. No regrets. I wish I would have done it sooner.”
Chris Phillips, currently an electronic and information technology accessibility coordinator at USU, helped restart the USU Special Olympic charter in 1999. He served as the program’s first head of delegations.
The 22-year-old Idaho native had experience with the special olympic program in high school. Chris’s two brothers, Dallin and Patrick Phillips, have special needs and were athletes in the program.
Phillips reflected on when he decided to start the charter at USU, “I had that experience with Special Olympics and just thought that it would be a great opportunity for Campus and for a lot of athletes with disabilities to have those connections and relationships.”
Chris’s experiences with the program was nothing short of life changing. He also said “a huge benefit of the program is the friendship opportunities it creates. Sometimes, people might come into the program with the idea of serving others who are different,” Phillips said, “but generally realize pretty quick that we’re all humans with more similarities than differences with the ability to help each other.”
Another perk that Phillips experienced from the program was meeting his wife, who was a volunteer coach, at a Special Olympic swim meet.
Stratt Caputo is the program’s current Head of Delegations. He oversees the the many activities and services the charter offers, including: bowling, swimming, bocce ball, track and field and a cheer program.
Caputo said that the purpose of the program is inclusion —getting the athletes out and seen in the community and helping them live healthy active lifestyles. In doing this, the participants find a sense of fulfillment.
Stratt said volunteering with Special Olympics was different because, “When you volunteer with like a food drive, you don’t always see your direct results. Within this you see your direct results immediately.”
The time the volunteers give is relatively small. With a couple of hours each week dedicated to coaching and supporting athletes and a few days for competitions, including the regional swim, and track and field competitions that are hosted at the University.
Even with the smaller time commitment, student-volunteers reported a sense of fulfillment.
Stratt said, “From week to week, you see these athletes grow and their skills develop. You see a measurable rise in their score, rise in self confidence, in their dedication. I think for a lot of our coaches, that’s really what keeps them coming back.”
Bella Pritchett, head of the Olympic’s cheer program and Freshman at USU, when asked how the program changed her life responded, “For the better, of course. I absolutely love it.”
The cheer team Bella coaches is unique. It is one of the few Special Olympic cheer squads in the region. Last semester, the squad was comprised of eight athletes. These cheerleaders assist fellow athletes and often perform “The Scotsman” at events.
Bella knew Stratt through work; and after he found out Bella did cheer in high school and that his current cheer head coach couldn’t continue with the program, Stratt recruited Bella as the new head cheer coach. She started in Fall 2016 and hopes to continue volunteering till she graduates.
Pritchett spoke about the power of the program, “It’s not just cheerleading, if they can cheer they can do more things, it helps them learn how to get job skills. Even though [cheer] is like a super insignificant thing that’s mostly for fun, it builds their confidence,” she said.
One athlete whose life has been recently impacted by the program is Jeff Hansen. Hansen was involved with a Special Olympic in his twenties, but stopping being involved. Recently, Hansen came back to the program.
Stratt discussed how since Jeff has been coming back, Jeff always expresses enthusiasm in coming to events. His coaches and fellow athletes have encouraged and inspired to him to do personal exercise and to eat healthier.
Hansen said the best part of coming to Special Olympics is being able to bowl and the friends that he has made.
Patrick Phillips, an athlete and Chris Philip’s brother, told of his experiences in the program, “[When I come] I feel really good. It has helped me get along with other athletes. My favorite part is just having a good time.”
Right now, the program hosts 42 athletes and around 30 volunteers. Stratt’s hope is to get enough coach volunteers so that there is a one-to-one ratio of coaches to athletes.
To those who are interested in volunteering but might be hesitant, Bella Pritchett advises, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. It will change your life. It is definitely worth your while.”
There is definitely a special feeling that exists as volunteers interact with athletes — a sense of fulfillment is achieved.
Anyone interested in volunteering with the program can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 435-258-8236.