Megan Scremin loves watching athletes from Special Olympics Colorado (SOCO) compete. What’s more, she loves watching their families witness their success. As a parent herself, she knows what it means for the parents to see their son or daughter excel on the playing field, stand on the podium, and receive a medal, when so often they are only told about their child’s limitations.
This is why Scremin will continue to recruit as many athletes—of all abilities—to SOCO as possible.
SOCO serves about 25,000 athletes all over Colorado each year in an array of programs that are inclusive and free to participants. As the new president and CEO of SOCO, Scremin plans to build upon what the organization has been doing for the community since 1969.
We recently asked her about her goals for the organization, how it supports athletes, and how it creates inclusive environments.
Colorado Parent: You’ve been involved with SOCO for seven years, and became the president and CEO in December. What motivates you?
Megan Scremin: I fell in love with the mission, the organization, the people, the families. I think Special Olympics is unique in how many layers of people are involved. We have about 10,000+ volunteers that we utilize each year, and community members come from all over. We have 2,500 coaches that we work with so it really is a very widespread organization. We really work with and welcome people of all abilities.
CP: Can you explain SOCO’s “unified” sports?
MS: Pretty much everything we do at Special Olympics is unified, with teams comprised of people with and without disabilities. My four-year-old son is typically developing, but he’s getting ready to start on a Young Athletes basketball team (for two- to seven-year-olds) and he can participate in Special Olympics as a Unified Partner for as long as he wants.
Twelve years ago we started our Unified Champion Schools Program to help bridge that gap between kids with and without intellectual differences. The program brings them together as a way to build confidence, to build friendships, and to create welcoming school environments. Bullying runs rampant in schools, both for kids with and without disabilities. People with disabilities are three times more likely to be bullied than those without. But we’ve found that when they pick up a basketball, all of those differences melt away and they just become kids playing basketball together.
(Editor’s Note: According to research on the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools (UCS) program, 97 percent of UCS liaisons felt that the program created a more socially inclusive school environment, and 94 percent indicated that the UCS program reduced bullying, teasing, and offensive language in their schools. Ninety-seven percent of the liaisons reported increased participation of students with intellectual disabilities in school activities, leading to more inclusive attitudes school-wide.)
CP: How does SOCO serve and involve parents and other family members of athletes?
MS: Family members receive tremendous benefit from participating. They instantly gain a network of peers and friends. Also, when their kids come to a young athlete’s competition or an exhibition or practice, they’re automatically seeing other kids who are in their same shoes who are doing amazing things. They’re playing basketball. They’re happy. They’re having friends. They’re confident. And that gives family members instant hope and excitement for the future when they’re really dealing with a lot of very heavy, often scary things.
I will also say there are many benefits to families of Unified Partners that get involved. For me as a parent, it is incredibly important that my son is getting involved in SOCO—for him to grow up in a world where he is comfortable with people that look and speak differently than he does.
CP: What does SOCO offer through its Health and Wellness Program for its athletes and Unified Partners
MS: Again, sports is our catalyst and we know that in order to compete at their best, athletes need to feel their best. Sadly, people with disabilities do not receive the same health care as those without due to a number of factors, including access and lack of insurance. Oftentimes there is a barrier to understanding the individual, and health care providers haven’t been trained to work with people with special needs. We offer free health screenings at our competitions in seven different disciplines, including dentistry, vision, audiology, podiatry, and physical therapy. As an example, at our vision screenings, athletes who need them can walk away with free prescription glasses. The screenings are being conducted by clinicians that have been trained to work with people with special needs, so it’s really a great model.
CP: In your new role as president and CEO, what do you hope for SOCO moving forward?
MS: My hope is to be able to reach as many athletes as we can, first and foremost. There are an estimated 150,000 to 170,000 people with intellectual disabilities in our state, about three percent of the population. We’re reaching a lot of them, but by comparison to how many are out there, a pretty small proportion. So my goal is to create quality programming, but also to expand what we offer to more people around the state.
I would also love to continue working with our athlete leaders. I’d really love to see more athletes go through our athlete leadership programming so that they gain more confidence and competence outside the playing field. While we have made a lot of progress, our athletes still face an uphill climb. They’re constantly being told what they can or cannot do. Assumptions are being placed upon them regularly.
We have different leadership platforms, one of which we target toward our adult athletes, and another in our Unified Champion Schools Programs where we’re really looking to student athletes to take on leadership roles. Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a public speaker or you’re going to be the loudest person in the room. It’s really giving athletes the opportunity to lead in a way that is meaningful to them; and giving them the ability to share their story confidently.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.