‘A mean-spirited cut’: Valley residents react to DeVos proposal to eliminate funding for Special Olympics

  • Katie O’Reilly and Lucie Pasche play basketball as part of the Milestones Day Program in Hadley. They both participate in the Special Olympics. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mikey Acevedo, 29, blocks Jenna Perna-Elias, a teacher, while playing basketball as part of the Milestones Day Program in Hadley. He has been a participant in the Special Olympics for the past eight years.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lucie Pasche brings the ball down court while Daniel McHugh follows while playing basketball as part of a Milestones Day Program in Hadley. Both have participated in the Special Olympics for the past 10 years.   GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mikey Acevedo,29, plays basketball as part of the Milestones Day Program. He has been a participant in the Special Olympics for the past eight years. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katie O’Reilly cheers after Sari Hassan makes a shot while playing basketball as part of the Milestones Day Program in Hadley. They both participate in the Special Olympics. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Letitia Ward makes a shot while playing basketball as part of a Milestones Day Program in Hadley. Katie O'Reilly and Daniel McHugh are in the background and participate in the Special Olympics. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel McHugh takes a shot while playing basketball as part of a Milestones Day Program in Hadley. McHugh has participated in the Special Olympics for the past 10 years.   GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2019 5:02:38 PM

HADLEY — Mikey Acevedo, 29, has been involved in Special Olympics sports for eight years, first starting with bowling and later playing basketball.

“It taught me about character, it taught me discipline, it taught me to be a better man,” he said.

It’s also how he met Cade Holden, 22, he said with a smile Thursday at Milestones Day Program run by Pathlight, an organization that supports people with disabilities and their families.

“We’re rivals,” said Holden, who has also competed in swimming and soccer.

Without those programs, both Acevedo and Holden said they wouldn’t have an opportunity for competitive sports.

But now, federal funding for the Special Olympics is under threat, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently proposed to eliminate funding for the program — which last year received $17.6 million from the Department of Education — as part of a $7 billion slashing of next year’s Department of Education budget.

“There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money,” DeVos said in a statement. “Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

Her proposal has prompted negative reactions from many — from representatives in Congress to athletes nationwide to residents here in the Valley — and disbelief that such a program would be abandoned.

And maybe it won’t be: Late afternoon Thursday, President Trump said he would be backing off the proposed budget cut to the Special Olympics program, telling reporters at the White House, “I’ve overridden my people for funding the Special Olympics.”

In the late 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics having grown up swimming, sailing, skiing and playing football with her sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability, according to the organization’s website. Shriver’s goal was to give young people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to play sports.

As for the DeVos proposal, “I think it’s a mean-spirited cut to a vulnerable population, and it makes no sense,” said Valle Dwight, director of communications and development at Pathlight.

“I’m equally concerned about the support of charter schools,” Dwight added. That’s because DeVos also suggested allocating millions more into charter school funding in the upcoming budget.

“They’re notorious for not educating kids with disabilities — it’s a double blow,” Dwight said.

She noted that parents of children with disabilities often already face extra expenses. If there’s no funding for Special Olympics programming, “It’s going to leave some people out, and these are people who are left out of so many programs,” Dwight said.

Dwight’s son Aidan has Down syndrome and has been involved in Special Olympics sports, such as soccer and basketball, for many years.

“It’s a major time to be with their friends,” she said. “It is a big deal. It’s hard to articulate why it’s so great — there’s something pretty magical about a Special Olympics tournament when we’re there.”

Seeing friends is a highlight for Katie O’Reilly, 28, who has been involved in the Special Olympics for 18 years, playing a variety of sports from soccer to boccie. She has saved all her medals from the end-of-the-season awards. “I love it,” O’Reilly said.

Hampshire County has several Special Olympics sports teams, including soccer, basketball, swimming, and track and field, said Anne Duffy, who lives in Amherst and coordinates the county’s program.

The Hampshire County Special Olympics sports teams group does a significant amount of their own fundraising and gets some help from the Special Olympics Massachusetts, Duffy said.

Cuts to the program would be “unjust” and “tragic,” she said, adding that the proposal treats those with special needs as “second-class citizens.”

She hopes that officials reconsider the plan. “It would be devastating, for the athletes and people in general, to have it be cut.”

Several Hampshire County schools districts are Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, part of an initiative that encourages youth leadership and brings “unified” sports teams — groups that include students with and without disabilities — to schools.

Granby, Northampton, Hampshire Regional and South Hadley school districts participate, according to Patti Doherty, director of schools and youth engagement at Special Olympics Massachusetts.

“We have been getting funding from the Department of Education for the past 10 years, and that has allowed us to go into the schools,” said Doherty, adding that their group matches every dollar the DOE awards them with $2 in donation funding.

The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program isn’t just about sports, Doherty said: “It’s really trying to change the climate of a school to one that’s more inclusive and respectful to everybody.”

Doherty is not sure yet how the potential cuts would impact the program. “I don’t have that answer. We’re just trying to make as big of an impact as we can,” she said. “It’s just going to make it more difficult.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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