Finding the Next Generation of Special Olympics Volunteers
This past Labour Day weekend, 35 volunteers (ages 15-25) came together in Calgary, Alberta for a Youth Activation Conference hosted by Special Olympics Canada (SOC). The conference featured guest speakers, working sessions and was infused with an electric energy and passion for Special Olympics and the movement at large.
Targeting youth is a strategy SOC adopted from Special Olympics Inc. (SOI). Youth Activation is a major focus south of our border, where SO programs of many states have engaged the youth in their schools and communities to great effect, bringing a renewed energy and increased capacity to their programs. Seeing this and recognizing a need to do a better job of engaging youth, SOC decided to form a national Youth Activation Council.
The conference was organized by SOC’s new Youth Activation Council, a group of six volunteers from across the country, and Program Manager, Ross Ste-Croix. The conference kicked off on September 5th with a moving talk from the mother of a Special Olympics athlete, Karen Saunders. The opening evening also featured an appearance by SOC Champions Network member and President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames, Brian Burke. Burke spoke of the importance of giving back and how there was no better way to give back than to volunteer with Special Olympics.
The morning of day two of the conference featured a packed agenda, whereby the attendees were treated to presentations on the structure of the organization, an introduction on intellectual disabilities as well as how best to leverage social media platforms to promote Special Olympics. Over lunch, Champions Network Chair and Canadian Olympic Gold-Medalist, Mark Tewksbury regaled the audience with stories of teamwork and overcoming adversity. Tewksbury closed his talk with a challenge to the young volunteers: to use their passions and strengths to benefit the movement.
In the afternoon of day two, the conference resumed with a presentation by Paul Manuel and Theresa Garagan of the Law Enforcement Torch Run on grassroots fundraising and was followed up by a chance for the attendees to hear from some Special Olympics athletes. SOC board member Katie Saunders and her fellow Alberta athletes, Andrew Chamczuk and Leonka Kaluha shared their experiences in the Athlete Leadership Program with the attendees and then participated in group discussions focused on engaging athletes.
The final day of the conference showcased the work that was done over the previous two days. Each participant was asked to commit to, and present, a project to benefit Special Olympics that they could run in their local programs. The ideas that came out of this session left no doubt that the event had been a success. From developing partnerships in their schools to establishing provincial youth activation and athlete input councils to fundraising, the next generation of Special Olympics volunteers left Calgary full of vigor and creativity!