Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) Athlete Alec, his mom Candace, SONC Coach Michele and former Olympic Swimmer Donna de Varona were a part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as members of a Special Olympics Sports Envoy to Malta in late 2019.
The envoy was developed in partnership between Special Olympics, Inc., the U.S. Department of State, and the Republic of Malta with the goal of promoting Special Olympics and social inclusion.
“This was probably one of my favorite experiences with Special Olympics,” said Coach Michele. “It was a collaborative effort that highlighted the value of inclusive societies and the bringing together individuals with and without intellectual disabilities through the power of sports.”
The nearly week-long trip included the group spending time at the University of Malta to spread the word about inclusion to current physical education teachers and those in training; and some hands-on engagement with an inclusive group of students in the pool.
“At the university, we were there to push the idea of inclusion in sports, practical ways on how to implement such a program, and to hear their concerns,” said Candace. “From that conversation, they decided to implement a practicum for all university students to volunteer a certain amount of hours with Special Olympics.”
At the pool, Alec and Coach Michele led lessons for groups of local students with and without disabilities – along with some other local Special Olympics athletes, some of whom Alec had competed with at the 2019 World Games. The students, accompanied by teachers and coaches, were integrated together for the lessons, along with other games and activities, which was a first for local sports programs. Other students with more profound disabilities, who perhaps could not integrate fully into every activity, were still able to experience the lessons and celebrate with their schoolmates for likely the first time.
“The kids had so much fun,” said Candace. “Their parents were there and they were crying to see them swimming with their classmates. Some of those kids then signed up for Special Olympics. It was neat to see some of the kids that never got to experience these kinds of things be successful. And their parents were just in tears.”
In addition to time spent at the university and the pool, the SONC group was kept busy with a number of activities and events. They did TV interviews discussing Special Olympics, inclusive sports and the World Games experience; spoke with Malta officials and nonprofit organizations; and were even invited to a private dinner at the home of the Malta prime minister.
“I think it’s really cool that I got to speak about Special Olympics on a global level,” said Alec.
But there was still time to explore Malta’s beauty. Alec had the opportunity to swim in the Mediterranean Sea and see a number of historical sites. Coach Michele described it as “one of the most beautiful places in the world” – and Alec, Candace and Michele all spoke glowingly about the Malta people and how welcoming, nice and hospitable they were during the visit.
The hope is that the sports envoy will not be a one-time effort, and Malta hopes to host other inclusive events in the future. The trip – and Special Olympics’ immeasurable spirit - impacted countless lives both internationally and back here at home.
“I cannot begin to share what I have learned from this experience,” said Coach Michele. “Hopefully this collaboration will make me not only a better coach, but a better human being. Most important, this experience only confirms that Special Olympics is a program that promotes peace, success, friendships, health and everything else that is good in this world.”