Despite facing the polar vortex — albeit grudgingly — and recent bitter cold, one February event will benefit from northwestern Pennsylvania’s current state of extreme winter.
The Winter Special Olympics, co-sponsored by Erie’s Public Schools and the Council for Exceptional Children of Mercyhurst University, will have enough “white stuff” for more than 200 athletes with special needs to compete in the annual event slated for Thursday, Feb. 6, at Peek ‘n Peak Resort in Clymer, N.Y.
Not only is that good news for the high school-aged athletes who find joy and confidence through this event, said Susan Johnson, CEC advisor and assistant professor of education, but it also benefits Mercyhurst students, especially education majors who rely on the Special Olympics as one of the several opportunities to gain practical, hands-on experience.
“CEC reflects Mercyhurst's mission of commitment to serve others and exercise leadership in service toward a better world,” said Johnson. “And, the Special Olympics helps athletes and Mercyhurst students alike discover new strengths and abilities.”
As co-chairs of the event — Sarah Zaczkiewicz ’14 and Kelley Hynes ’15, both early childhood and special education majors — have found their involvement with the Winter Special Olympics both rewarding and career-affirming.
“I didn’t come to college expecting to be in charge of something so special as the Winter Special Olympics,” said Zaczkiewicz, who added that art therapy was her major of choice initially. “But now, to be able to head this up, is an incredible feeling. I can use this as an experience, one that I’m not sure I would get if I attended a big university.”
While the event inspired Zaczkiewicz to change her major, Hynes always knew that teaching was her dream.
“When I was a kid, I would always play ‘teacher.’ And, I really enjoy being around kids,” said Hynes. “After volunteering with the Winter Special Olympics and taking two special education classes about high and low disabilities, I knew I was meant for a career in special education.”
The Winter Special Olympics runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with volunteers assisting athletes through several events, such as downhill skiing, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. CEC also hosts Olympic Village, an indoor site where volunteers and athletes can play games, enjoy crafts and escape the cold. Every athlete also receives an award ribbon during the closing ceremony.
“The athletes excel with the Winter Special Olympics; it’s something that they really enjoy and work for,” said Hynes. “I just love this event because it’s rewarding watching them progress.”
Caitlin Doyle ’14 and Cayla Slade ’16, also co-chair the event. Mercyhurst University and CEC have sponsored the annual event since the 1970s, with CEC raising money to fund its involvement. The Winter Special Olympics began in 1968.
Special thanks to Wegman’s for donating a $200 gift card, which will be used toward an Olympics-inspired cake for all athletes and volunteers to enjoy.
The Council for Exceptional Children is a student-run organization that is the vision and voice for special education. CEC’s mission is to improve, through excellence and advocacy, the education and quality of life for individuals with disabilities. CEC strives to promote education, mentorship and philanthropy in the local community.
Students who are interested in volunteering for the Winter Special Olympics can contact Susan Johnson via e-mail. Volunteers are not required to be a member of CEC or an education major.
Photo: Sarah Zaczkiewicz at last year's Winter Special Olympics