Making a Difference: Volunteers and Sports Programs for the Disabled

Everyone hears about the benefits of volunteering.  During almost every presidential inauguration, the president speaks about the need to serve one’s community through volunteerism.  The people who end up making the decision to volunteer their time are indeed able to do their part to improve their communities.  Volunteers at sports clubs for athletes with disabilities provide one clear example of how a strong showing of volunteers can allow a club to do more for its athletes.  However, these sports clubs would be able to help out the athletes even more if they expanded their efforts to seek out summer volunteers from local high schools.

Sports clubs for athletes with disabilities rely on volunteer help.  Getting this volunteer help allows an organization to offer year-round programs for its athletes.  For example, Special Olympics Maryland’s program in Baltimore County has a sizable volunteer staff, with some volunteers organizing Special Olympics sports programs for more than 30 years.  One of these volunteers is Mike Czarnowsky.  He coaches the Baltimore County track and field team in the spring and the cross country team in the fall.  He works alongside other volunteers who run a basketball team in the winter, a softball team in the spring, a sailing team in the summer, and a soccer team in the fall.  Over the phone, Mr. Czarnowsky talked about how athletes in Baltimore County attend practices 1-3 times each week and that many athletes are active throughout the entire year1.

Courtesy cthoyes

Unfortunately, not every athlete has the support of such a program.  Brian Blake, one of the athletes in the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, which teaches athletes with special needs about long-distance running, said that he had few opportunities to play sports before he joined Rolling Thunder.  He said that he liked track and field, but he wished he could run more than once a year at the Special Olympics New Jersey meet in Somerset County. When he first joined the Rolling Thunder team, he said that he was “willing to work as hard as possible” and “to his limit”, something he could never do running a 100-meter race once a year2.  When Mr. Czarnowsky heard about athletes like Brian that ran meets with Special Olympics New Jersey with no training whatsoever, Mr. Czarnowsky responded by saying that some local Special Olympics chapter are not as “active” as others and that sometimes athletes like Brian “fall through the cracks”.  Mr. Czarnowsky pointed to a lack of local interest as a possible cause, as well as a possible lack of funding1.

One way to make Brian’s Special Olympics chapter more active would be to look to local high schools for volunteers over the summer.  For example, members of sports teams at the high school would find the idea of teaching their sport to someone who never had the opportunity to throw a baseball or run a mile certainly attractive.  Many of the volunteers at the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program are track runners themselves.  They run alongside the athletes during practice and tell the athletes stories about their first track races.  Additionally, high schoolers are having much difficulty finding jobs according to recent unemployment figures, so volunteering with a sports club would be a fitting alternative for them3.  Many Rolling Thunder volunteers have trouble finding jobs or getting scheduled for their jobs, so helping out athletes with disabilities during the evening sometimes becomes the focal point of their day.

Additionally, one can organize a group of high school volunteers to start a new team on their own that coaches athletes with disabilities, but works alongside an established organization like Special Olympics.  For some counties in New Jersey that may not have a track and field team, someone can simply get a group of coaches together, send an email to local special education departments, and start holding practices.  By working alongside an organization like Special Olympics, these high school volunteers can focus on coaching the athletes, while the organization takes care of administrative tasks that may be confusing and tiring for an inexperienced volunteer.  For example, Special Olympics can obtain liability insurance for the practices and can register the team for local races.  It can also educate coaches on the basics of working with athletes with disabilities, as well as provide a recognizable logo to go on publicity fliers.

The benefits of a strong volunteer force are very visible in Baltimore County’s Special Olympics teams.  Some programs are not as active, but they can improve their offerings to athletes with disabilities by recruiting high school students, especially those that play sports that Special Olympics offers.  Fortunately, for Brian, he found Rolling Thunder and has been running 2-3 times each week, listening to the stories the volunteers tell on the runs.  Instead of waiting an entire year to run again, he only has to wait for the weekend to end before he can get going again.


1. Mike Czarnowsky, interview by Evan Jin, Bridgewater, NJ, July 18, 2012.

2. Brian Blake, interviewed by Evan Jin, Bridgewater, NJ, March 10, 2012.

3. “Table A-1. Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Sex and Age.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2012.

4. Image credit (Creative Commons): cthoyes “Special Olympics 2010” Flickr, Apr. 27, 2010.

Evan Jin is a third-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in philosophy, and is a Senior Editor of The Triple Helix Online.  Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.