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

Special Olympics Arizona offers a variety of sports, including 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 Special Olympics fundraiser; each year, more than 110,000 law enforcement personnel and Special Olympics athletes carry the Flame of Hope. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

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

PHOENIX — At times, 20-year-old Jacob Cohen felt out of place in his community. He stayed home all day, had few friends and was left alone.

Living with autism made Cohen’s days difficult. Then Unified Sports came into his life.

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

Unified Sports, a program set up by Special Olympics, brings together people with intellectual and non-intellectual disabilities in teams to promote social inclusion and mutual respect.

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

Unified Sports gave Jacob friendships and provided opportunities for physical activity. He communicates with his teammates over the phone, which allows him to befriend 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 part of Unified Sports, he’s stayed in touch with some of his classmates who also participated, and he calls them regularly and talks to them,” Travis said.

Maria Beckman, Unified Sports Coordinator for San Tan Foothills High School and Jacob’s special education teacher, was an essential instructor and a vital piece in Jacob’s life. She made life easier for the Cohens and encouraged Jacob’s brother, Joshua, to join the Unified program. They played on the same team for three years, thanks to Unified Sports.

At 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) played a pivotal role as Jacob recently began competing with the Tri City Miners team, a year-round unified sports team.

Unified Sports is just one of the many opportunities that allow people with developmental 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, enabling people with developmental disabilities to participate in sports with their schools.

SOAZ offers a variety of opportunities, allowing individuals to participate in low or high impact sports. Robyn Simpson, Digital Assets and Operations Coordinator, worked for Special Olympics Arizona for two years, continuing her involvement since her high school days in creating opportunities to grow the community.

“We have a virtual lineup that includes various activities including yoga, bingo, games among us, family fun nights on Fridays where we play games, etc.,” Simpson said. “We also have an esports league where athletes from across the state can compete 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 including yoga and esports leagues. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

In addition to these activities, SOAZ offers free health examinations for athletes during competitions. Having certified clinicians at events allows athletes to receive care in a more comfortable setting.

“Taking (doctors) out of white coats and seeing our athletes in more fun environments is vitally important,” said Special Olympics Arizona CEO and President Jamie Heckerman. “Our athletes get free eyeglasses 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, forcing people to participate in activities from home.

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

In the wake of COVID-19, SOAZ is working on creating a database to be constantly connected with its athletes. This would allow communication for people leaving school or moving out of state.

The effort relies heavily on volunteers, with more than 20,000 contributing time and support, ensuring athletes have the best experience at practices, games and events.

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SOAZ also relies on donations and fundraising, as 95% of the money raised goes “directly to programs for our athletes,” Heckerman said. This ensures athletes don’t have to worry about paying bills to participate in the organization.

Many events are resuming in-person and the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) is one of them. He has raised over $600 million for Special Olympics programs, making him one of the largest fundraisers in the country. In Arizona, the LETR has raised over $1 million.

Darin Eccles, Coordinator of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, has been part of the SOAZ community for approximately 15 years and is a primary LETR event coordinator. He said he uses whatever assets he has access to, ensuring the event can raise awareness for the organization and the cause. Another fundraiser Eccles participated in for SOAZ was the Fuel of Dreams, sponsored by Fry’s.

Being able to participate in activities and fundraise for SOAZ has changed Eccles’ life.

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

Eccles is one of thousands of people who have worked to provide an opportunity to not let intellectual disabilities prevent people from living their full lives.

“It’s great to remember why we do what we do and to see how happy it makes our athletes,” Simpson said. “They’re so happy to be back in person, every event we do, the energy is electric. We’re so happy to be here and to be together.

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