Special Olympics Florida: Cheers to 50 Years

Turning 50 is considered a milestone, and for the Special Olympics Florida that couldn’t be truer. Not only is the organization celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022, but it will also be hosting the Special Olympics USA games. Can someone say big deal?! 

What makes it even more special is that the games will take place right here in Central Florida June 5-12! President and CEO of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, Joe Dzaluk, has spent years preparing for this moment.

“I started volunteering and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be a member of the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Florida and so I’ve been involved in this great movement for a while now,” Dzaluk says. “When we had the opportunity to bid on the games, I was able to take that knowledge and my passion for our athletes and was excited when I was given the opportunity to become president of the games.”

Special Olympics’ mission is to provide “year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.” This is accomplished through giving willing participants the opportunity to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and much more!

According to their website, the ultimate objective of Special Olympics Florida is to “help people with intellectual disabilities participate as productive and respected members of society at large, by offering them a fair opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills and talents through sports training and competition, and by increasing the public’s awareness of their capabilities and needs.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, was a pioneer in the worldwide struggle for rights and acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she noticed that people with intellectual disabilities were often mistreated, ignored, and excluded. 

This was true for her sister Rosemary who had an intellectual disability and therefore did not have much access to sports programs at the time. Eunice believed that if people with intellectual disabilities were given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else, they could accomplish more than anyone could imagine.

So, following her belief, in 1962 she invited young people with intellectual disabilities to a summer day camp called Camp Shriver. She continued to host the camp in her backyard until 1968 when the first International Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago, Illinois. 

It was there that Eunice pledged that the Special Olympics would offer people with intellectual disabilities everywhere “the chance to play, the chance to compete and the chance to grow.”

50 years later, Special Olympics Florida, Dzaluk and countless others have worked to honor Eunice’s pledge.

“My dad taught me at an early age about service and about giving back and so for me this was an opportunity to give,” Dzaluk says. “Special Olympics is just a great organization. It allows us to really open our hearts and our minds to people with intellectual differences. It helps create a more inclusive culture.”

To date, the organization serves over 60,000 athletes and offers training and competition in a variety of team and individual sports, with the help of over 38,000 dedicated coaches and volunteers statewide. Special Olympics Florida also provides more than $2 million in free medical screenings for thousands of Floridians with intellectual disabilities through its health programs, including much needed access to free prescription glasses and hearing aids. 

Year round, Special Olympics Florida offers multiple programs including sports, health and fitness, unified champion schools, youth and adaptive sports, athlete leadership, Camp Shriver, and home fitness. 

Anyone can participate in Special Olympics if they meet the eligibility criteria of having intellectual disabilities or a similar developmental disability. The program is also free of cost to all athletes and parents. 

Special Olympics Florida will continue to announce all-new events and experiences that will take place in 2022 to honor its 50 years of serving those with intellectual disabilities.

“I would encourage all the people here in Central Florida to do two things: volunteer and come to the games-that’s the message we would love to get out to everyone here in Central Florida,” Dzaluk says. 

The Special Olympics USA Games will be televised on ABC and ESPN. 

“Orlando’s got a great reputation and foundation for being an inclusive place to visit and live and we’re just going to be able to showcase that on a national stage,” Dzaluk says. 

For more information about Special Olympics Florida visit https://www.specialolympicsflorida.org/. For more information about the 2022 Special Olympics Games visit https://www.2022specialolympicsusagames.org/


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Written by Alexis George

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