Realizing A Dream

01

THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS ALASKA SPORTS, HEALTH AND WELLNESS CENTER

BY J. GLENN M. ROSWAL

In 2014, Special Olympics Alaska opened the doors to the latest phase of the Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health, and Wellness Center, an incredible 28,000 square foot facility in Anchorage, Alaska, which is a part of the Special Olympics Alaska Athlete Training Center and Camp. The Center is an $8 million facility which includes a 20,000-square foot multi-purpose high school size basketball area, an indoor track, a 1,000 square foot weight training and physical fitness center, a multi-purpose room for athletes and volunteers, a board room and classroom, a commercial kitchen for event functions and nutrition education, showers and lockers, and office space to house the Special Olympics Alaska headquarters.

Today, the vision of a small group of dedicated Alaskans has become a reality.
With a staff of 10 dedicated professionals, Special Olympics Alaska now offers a program
serving 3,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, thousands of family members
and volunteers with an annual budget of $1.8 million.

The story of how this facility came to be is a story of vision, perseverance, and dedication by a group of Alaskan visionaries and a community that banded together to make the vision a reality. Like all good stories, the best place to start is always at the beginning, so let’s look back in time to follow the path of how the Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health, and Wellness Center went from a bold idea to a facility that serves thousands of people, with and without disabilities, from across the state of Alaska.

In 1969, Alaska began providing services for people with intellectual disabilities, under the  leadership of Chuck Melick and in 1974 the Special Olympics Alaska charter was approved. Special Olympics Alaska provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for all Alaskans with intellectual disabilities. In 1996, faced with a program offering minimal services to 398 athletes and low in cash assets, Special Olympics Alaska Board of Directors Chair Ken Gutsch hired Jim Balamaci, a young Kodiak Island entrepreneur as Special Olympics Alaska Executive Director. Mike Flanigan, Don Winchester, Gary Matthews, Rebecca Logan, and Paul Landes, a group of Anchorage business leaders and members of the Special Olympics Alaska Board of Directors, met with Jim and asked him what kind of outreach needs to happen to move the Special Olympics Alaska program forward. Together, these Alaska visionaries, along with the support of Patti McGuire and U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, put forward a plan to host the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games and to build a facility to serve as the focus of the Special Olympics Alaska program and provide an Olympic-style home for the training of coaches and athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Behind the leadership and perseverance of Jim Balamaci, the dream of hosting the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games became a reality. The Games, with a budget of $25 million, served as a catalyst to bring the Anchorage community together in providing one of the best Special Olympics winter game experiences ever. Over 1,800 athletes and 5,000 volunteers from 80 countries came to Alaska to celebrate athletes with intellectual disabilities.

The Games would have an economic impact of over $20 million to Anchorage. Capitalizing on the momentum created by the Winter Games, Jim and the Board of Directors began a bold and  aggressive campaign of expanding the Special Olympics Alaska program to serve more Alaskans with intellectual disabilities. A key move was to recruit Nicolle Egan, an innovative special education teacher who had created the Special Olympics World Winter Games School Program, a program that has since been modeled in countries around the world. Together, Jim and Nicolle would create a vibrant, innovative Special Olympics Alaska School Program, which would become the core of the Special Olympics Alaska program and the foundation for activities at the proposed Sports, Health, and Wellness Center. They enlisted the help of Special Olympics Oregon volunteer Ted Martch, who would help introduce the School Program into Anchorage area schools. The School Program would become a model for other Special Olympics programs and would create new avenues to serve  athletes and their families.

At the same time, plans were proceeding on the new facility. With the assistance of Anchorage leader Mary Jane Michael, Mark Rowley, and Greg Jones, Jim approached Anchorage City and State of Alaska officials with the idea of building an education and training facility for Alaskans with intellectual disabilities in the Mountain View community of Anchorage. In 2002, Board Chair Mike Flanigan authorized the purchase of the property for the new facility and in 2006 the first phase of the Special Olympics Alaska Athlete Training center was opened, an 8,000 square foot , $2.5 million debt free facility that housed the Special Olympics Alaska program office, fitness center and athlete and coaches training facility. Through an aggressive building campaign, consisting of both public and private funding, expansion of the Center continued, with grants from the State of Alaska of $1 million in 2010, $2 million in 2011, and $4 million in 2012 thanks to support from Alaska Governor Sean Parnell, Speaker of the House John Harris, and Alaska State Senators Lesil McGuire and Bill Stolze. In 2014, the doors were opened for the 20,000 square foot expansion of the facility, which was renamed the Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health, and Wellness Center and allowed athletes and volunteers from across Alaska the opportunity to participate in sports, health, and wellness programs. The current facility is an $8.1 million campus, open year-round and serves Special Olympics athletes, families, coaches, and volunteers from communities across Alaska. The facility also has partnerships with Anchorage area schools and community organizations to use the facility for a variety of sports, wellness, and education training for children and adults from young athletes to senior citizens.

The Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health, and Wellness Center follows the United States Olympic Training Center model as a place to house the state program office and provide advanced athlete and coaches training. The Center hosts athlete, family, coaches, and volunteer training, along with  education programs such as healthy nutrition workshops, exercise and wellness programs, family home training programs, coaches and volunteer training, and health promotion programs. There are a number of unique and innovative programs that are offered at the Sports, Health, and Wellness Center that reach to the Special Olympics Alaska core values:
• Community is our Focus
• Sport is our Passion
• Health is our Commitment
• Excellence is our Goal

The Center also incorporates the Special Olympics Alaska Healthy Communities program, where Special Olympics athletes and others with intellectual disabilities have equal access to health and wellness resources, and can attain the same level of good health as all community members and where there is no “wrong door” from someone with intellectual disabilities to walk through. Here is a sampling of programs offered at the Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health, and Wellness Center.

The Traditional Sports Program provides sports training and competition for youth and adults with intellectual disabilities in communities across Alaska. Year-round programs in 14 Unified (inclusive) and traditional sports are offered. Community Special Olympics teams can schedule training practices and coaches clinics in the Center. Sport teams currently using the facility include basketball, track, floor hockey, snow shoeing, and cross-country skiing.

Unified Sports® brings athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together to train and compete in sports. The benefits of participating in Unified Sports® are numerous. Players learn and share their sport skills together and have opportunities to compete against other Unified teams throughout the year. It is meaningful inclusion and sports at its finest. Partners come from  community, schools, colleges, sports associations and organizations and families.

Camp Shriver Alaska is a two-week summer sports camp for middle and high school students with and without intellectual disabilities. Camp Shriver provides participating campers an opportunity to realize their potential in sports, develop physical fitness and experience the joys and friendship that are an integral part of camp.

The Coaches Education Program at the Center allows volunteer coaches the opportunity to participate in coaches training and ongoing education to provide the highest level of coaching  knowledge. Topics include training in sport specific skills, nutrition, risk management, and working with athletes with intellectual disabilities

Healthy Athletes Screenings are offered year-round at the Center. The screenings include initial screening and follow-up care promotion and referrals  connecting Special Olympics athletes with medical and health professionals and is a collaborative partnership with the University of Alaska Anchorage and Anchorage area health care providers. Programs include: MedFest (medical screenings), Opening Eyes® (vision screenings), Special Smiles® (dental screenings), Healthy Hearing (hearing screenings), Fit Feet (ankle and foot screenings), and FUNfitness (flexibility, strength, and balance screenings).

Unified Fitness Clubs allow athletes and partners (persons without intellectual disabilities) to work within a group setting with a personalized fitness plan created with his or her unique needs and goals in mind. Unified Fitness Clubs are a collaborative program with the University of Alaska Anchorage, local agencies and providers, and community fitness clubs. The Clubs include programs promoting healthy choices in exercise and nutrition that foster self-esteem and self-confidence through physical activity programs offered in inclusive social environments. Programs include Adult Unified Strength and Conditioning Program, Unified Walking Club, Unified Challenges, Community Unified Running/Walking Club, Unified Sports Series, Young Athlete Program and Senior Athlete Program.

The Aging Athlete Program is a pilot program providing inclusion health promotion, physical activity, and Unified Sports designed for people with and without disabilities aged 30 and older. Included is the Aging Athletes Summit, a collaborate partnership with Alaska Regional Hospital, Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, AARP of Alaska, and American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry to bring together health care professionals, educators, community health care providers, leaders from First Nation groups, and family associations from across Alaska to discuss the current status of services for aging Alaskans with intellectual disabilities and potential partnerships in promoting training, education, and program activities to address critical areas related to this population.

Today, the vision of a small group of dedicated Alaskans has become a reality. With a staff of 10 dedicated professionals, Special Olympics Alaska now offers a program serving 3,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, thousands of family members and volunteers with an annual budget of $1.8 million. Athletes train and compete year-round in 14 Olympic type sports, which helps bring persons with intellectual disabilities into the larger society under conditions whereby they are accepted, respected, and given the chance to become useful and productive citizens. For more information on Special Olympics Alaska and the Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health, and Wellness Center, contact Jim Balamaci, President/CEO, jim@specialolympicsalaska.org

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Glenn M. Roswal, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus Jacksonville State University. He is a 40-year Special Olympics volunteer and has been serving as a volunteer with Special Olympics Alaska since 1997.