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Tradition at heart of Special Olympics Indiana, set for June 10-12

June 8, 2016

As Special Olympics Indiana changes venues this year to the state-of-the art Gibson Track and Field Complex, the importance of the games continues as a valued tradition for athletes, families, supporters and Indiana State University.

Nathan Schaumleffel, associate professor at Indiana State and campus/executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Certification Program, sees the event from two vantage points: as a professor who uses community engagement and service-learning as a teaching tool and as the father of a Special Olympics athlete.

"Special Olympics gives us a reason to come out and celebrate (our son's) uniqueness," Schaumleffel said.

Special Olympics athletes have been celebrated in Indiana since 1969, when the organization launched at Indiana State with a few dozen individuals. Since then, Special Olympics Indiana has grown to this year's expected participation of more than 10,000 athletes and 7,000 volunteers throughout the state. The 2016 Summer Games will take place June 10-12.

Indiana State has also hosted the Men's Basketball Tournament since 1971 and is one of 10 sites for Polar Plunge, an annual fundraiser for Special Olympics that takes place in February.

This is the third year that Schaumleffel's older son Coleman, 10, has participated in the swimming division of the Special Olympics. Coleman was 8, the youngest age an athlete is allowed to participate, when his parents signed him up for his first Special Olympics in 2013. He's competed once, but Schaumleffel said the value of being a part of Special Olympics goes well beyond collecting ribbons.

For Schaumleffel, it's a bonding experience where father and son have the opportunity to swim together in a protective, supportive environment, he said. During the eight-week pregame Saturday practice sessions, Coleman goes with his father to campus, where they swim together and then spend time back at Schaumleffel's office watching videos and eating Coleman's favorite snacks, Cheesy Puffs.

"Coleman was born with profound special needs," Schaumleffel said. "We have a really, I would say, very powerful and connecting experience while swimming together since I've never been able to have a conversation with him."

The community formed by the athletes, their parents and other caregivers is a tremendous benefit, as Schaumleffel and his family have experienced. It offers support, encouragement and acceptance.

"It's a place where Coleman can be Coleman," he said. "All the families there - whether their athlete is 8 or 80 - they are all going through life making constant adjustments to accommodate and care for a loved one with special needs. Without it being clinical, it's a nice support group."

When he's not supporting a Special Olympics athlete, Schaumleffel is involved in Special Olympics Indiana in the classroom, where it's integrated into the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance curriculum that he directs for Indiana State.

"Most of my work with Special Olympics has been as a professor," he said. Many of his students intern and work with the organization through community engagement and service-learning courses. He has recently published two scholarship of engagement manuscripts centering on his work with Special Olympics Indiana. One in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, and the other in Schole: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education.

"It's great to be part of a college campus that believes in citizenship and takes citizenship education and civic education seriously," Schaumleffel said. "Special Olympics is such a big part of that movement here on our campus."

As the games bring the campus closer together, the change from the previous location of Marks Field to the Gibson complex will bring the activities closer together.

"Everything will be in close proximity," said Frederick Clark, director of Hulman Center Facilities and Event Services. "The games themselves will be centered in one location."

During his 16 years at Indiana State, Clark has worked with the opening ceremonies that take place in Hulman Center. This year, he is also involved with overall logistics.

"Some spectators will have the opportunity to park closer to the games," Clark said, "and won't have to walk so far."

Clark said he expects the biggest changes will be transporting athletes who stay on campus for the events. That concern is being addressed by several sectors, though, he said: Indiana Department of Transportation will provide additional signage warning of increased pedestrian traffic; there will be increased law enforcement presence in the area; and volunteers will stand at intersections to help people cross streets.

"The Special Olympics organization has also brought in several buses to help transport athletes over to the complex," Clark added.

Clark expects the transition to go smoothly and that processes are likely to be well in place within five years or sooner. "It's the same event that we hold every year, it's just going to be moved to a different location," Clark said. "It's exciting to give the athletes a chance to participate in a brand new facility, as well as showcase that brand new facility to those who come and watch."

Schaumleffel welcomes this year's change, too. "I think it's great that our campus is improving," he said. "Special Olympics is the one thing the entire campus really rallies around.

"As a professor, I love Special Olympics," Schaumleffel added. "And as the parent of an athlete, I love it, too."


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Media Contact: Libby Roerig, director of communications, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu