Union College welcomes Special Olympics guests

Mindy Liebelt helps coordinating volunteers for the Special Olympics National Games.

For the last seven months, Union College students, faculty and staff have been working hard to make sure others get a well-deserved moment of glory.

The glory started this week with the beginning of the Special Olympic 2010 USA National Games. Union is hosting more than 200 volunteers for the games:

  • 20 youth with the AmeriCorps program
  • more than 100 Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Runners
  • 80 corporate employees from KPMG, an international firm offering audit and tax advisory services.

Union’s support for the games goes beyond housing volunteers. Many college employees are taking time away form their campus duties to help out with the games as well, and two students Grace Escobar and Mindy Liebelt have spent half a year helping Lincoln prepare for the event.

Grace Escobar, 2010 graduate, has an internship with Street Team, a group that worked with Lincolnites to pave the way for the arrival of the athletes both physically and mentally. Awareness is the key to Escobar’s work; Street Team’s main focus is on building a better understanding about people with disabilities and the Special Olympics movement.

“Together we coordinate, plan and assist with outreach and educational programs targeted to students of all ages,” said Escobar. “By doing this we hope to inspire and motivate the youth to become engaged in the Special Olympics movement and to become leaders among their peers and future generations.”

Street Team has also met with churches and community groups who were interested in learning about the movement and volunteer opportunities. Her work impacted Union’s atmosphere when she started the r-word pledge on campus. Students signed pledges, vowing to stop using the words retard or retarded disparagingly. The signed papers were collected from each school in Lincoln and connected to create a paper chain used as a decoration for the opening ceremony.

Urged to action by Street Team, Lincoln elementary schools have made posters depicting their hopes and dreams for the future that will be used as decorations for the welcoming ceremony. The elementary students wrote personalized letters and presented them to the athletes.

“I know that I have made a difference by educating other youth about intellectual disabilities and the Special Olympics movement,” said Escobar. “It is wonderful to stand by an organization that endorses young people to take action and promote unity, inclusion, respect, and acceptance to all types of people.”

Another part of Escobar’s work was to inform people about ways to become involved as a volunteer. The Volunteer Services Department over saw the recruiting, registration, training, and managing the 8,000 volunteer positions needed for the games. Interning at the volunteer department is Mindy Liebelt, senior communication major.

“The 8,000 number represents one, eight hour shift volunteer day,” said Liebelt. “Since there are some volunteers working multiple days and others only working a partial shift the exact number of volunteers varies. We had an unprecedented response in Nebraska, we have more volunteers than shifts, leaving us with back up volunteers should they be needed.”

The enthusiastic response of Nebraskans to the call for volunteers is no surprise. The state is rated in the top five states for both the percentage of residents who volunteer and the totally number of hours donated according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Liebelt’s internship revolved around the training of the 8,000 volunteers, ensuring that the week of the games would run smoothly. The volunteers are invited to a Volunteer Appreciation Program that has been planned by Liebelt, she also planned the internal appreciation parties.

“I got involved with the Special Olympics because I love that it is all about: inclusion, empowerment, unity, acceptance, respect, dignity and advocacy,” said Liebelt. “I wanted to do my internship with an organization that I believed in, a special organization.”