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Unified Sports, Special Olympics Arizona focus on bringing the community together

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Special Olympics Arizona offers a variety of sports, such as bocce. Here, 20-year-old Jacob Cohen competes for the Tri City Miners, a Unified Sports team. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

The Law Enforcement Torch Run is the largest fundraiser at the Special Olympics; annually, more than 110,000 law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes carry the Flame of Hope. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

Special Olympics Arizona creates a community for athletes of any skill level to grow with their community as they participate in events. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Jacob Cohen, 20, sometimes felt displaced from his community. He stayed home all day, had few friends, and kept himself to himself.

Living with autism made the days of Cohen a challenge. Then Unified Sports came into his life.

“Jacob has been able to meet other adults like him and make new friends,” said his father, Travis Cohen. “The Special Olympics also taught him to be part of a team and to keep his commitments to others.”

Unified Sports, a program established through Special Olympics, brings together people with intellectual disabilities and people who are not part of teams to promote social inclusion and mutual respect.

Special Olympics defines a person with an intellectual disability as one with “certain limitations in functioning and cognitive abilities, including communication, social, and self-care skills.”

Unified Sports has given Jacob friendships and opportunities for physical activity. He communicates with colleagues by telephone, which allows him to make friends with people who have the same interests as him.

Special Olympics Arizona has 24,473 volunteers who help attend events and dedicate their time to supporting athletes during events. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

“Now that he’s been to Unified Sports, he’s kept in touch with some of his teammates who were also involved, and he calls them regularly and talks to them,” Travis said.

Maria Beckman, Unified Sports Coordinator at San Tan Foothills High School and Jacob’s special education teacher, was an instructor and a vital part of Jacob’s life. He made life easier for the Cohen and encouraged Jacob’s brother, Joshua, to participate in the Unified program. They played on the same team for three years, thanks to Unified Sports.

Jacob’s senior night at San Tan Foothills, he was recognized as an athlete, a moment Travis will never forget.

After high school, Jacob and his family looked for ways to continue participating in athletics. Special Olympics Arizona (SOAZ) has played a key role as Jacob recently began competing with the Tri City Miners, a year-round Unified Sports team.

Unified Sports is just one of many opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to participate in athletics and the opportunities continue to grow. In 2011, SOAZ and the Arizona Interscholastic Association, Arizona’s governing body for high school sports, partnered, allowing people with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports with their schools.

SOAZ offers a variety of opportunities that allow people to participate in low or high impact sports. Robyn Simpson, digital resources and operations coordinator, has worked for two years at Special Olympics Arizona, continuing her involvement from her time in high school to creating opportunities to grow the community.

“We have a virtual schedule that includes a variety of activities, including yoga, bingo, Among Us games, family fun nights on Fridays where we play games, and more,” Simpson said. “We also have a sports league where athletes from all over the state can play in video game tournaments.”

Special Olympics Arizona offers a variety of high and low impact sports, such as swimming and bowling, as well as online activities such as yoga and sports leagues. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

In addition to these activities, SOAZ offers free health tests for athletes in competitions. The fact that certified doctors come to the events allows athletes to receive care in a more comfortable environment.

“Taking off (the doctors) from the white robes and seeing our athletes there in more fun environments is very important,” said Jamie Heckerman, general manager and president of Special Olympics Arizona. “Our athletes receive free prescription glasses and sunglasses. They get new shoes if they need them, new hearing aids. They even do dental extractions on site for some of our events if needed. “

Over the years, SOAZ has continued to thrive. A year ago, progress was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it possible to participate in activities from home.

“We went into virtual programming, and while that’s good for some, it’s not good for everyone,” Heckerman said. “There is definitely a lack of access to technology, many of our athletes do not know how to use technology or do not have the family support system to do so. We have lost a lot of contact with our community. “

Following COVID-19, SOAZ is working on creating a database to stay constantly connected with its athletes. It would allow communication for people who drop out of school or move out of state.

The effort is largely dependent on volunteers, with more than 20,000 dedicating time and support, ensuring that athletes have the best experience in practice, games and events.

Related history

SOAZ also depends on donations and fundraising, as 95% of the money raised goes “directly to programs for our athletes,” Heckerman said. This ensures that athletes do not have to worry about paying any bills to participate with the organization.

Many events are picking up in person and the Law Enforcement Torch (LETR) career is one of them. It has raised more than $ 600 million for Special Olympics programs, making it one of the largest fundraisers in the country. In Arizona, the LETR has raised more than $ 1 million.

Darin Eccles, the coordinator of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, has been part of the SOAZ community for about 15 years and a key leader in coordinating the LETR event. He said he uses all the assets he has access to, making sure the event can raise awareness of the organization and the cause. Another fundraiser in which Eccles participated for SOAZ was the Fuel of Dreams, sponsored by Fry’s.

Being able to participate in activities and raise funds for SOAZ has changed the life of Eccles.

“When I was handing out the medals, one of the athletes stopped while he put the metal around his neck, gave me a big hug and gave me a big kiss on the cheek. And from that moment on, I got hooked on the Special Olympics, “said Eccles.

Eccles is one of thousands of individuals who have made every effort to provide an opportunity not to let intellectual disabilities prevent people from living life to the fullest.

“It’s great to remember why we do what we do and see how happy it makes our athletes,” Simpson said. “They are so happy to be back in person that any event we do, the energy is electric. We are very happy to be here and be with each other.”

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