Special Olympics Maine promotes social inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities through Unified Champion Clubs. The clubs join people with and without intellectual disabilities through shared recreational sports and inclusive activities. It was inspired by a simple principle: Playing and competing together creates a path to friendships, understanding and inclusion.
Special Olympics Maine, the largest sport organization in Maine for people with intellectual disabilities, provides over 5,000 adult and child athletes with year-round sports training and competitions along with inclusive opportunities. As an extension of the organization’s Unified Champion Schools program, Unified Champion Clubs team up with YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and other community entities to offer ongoing, year-round opportunities for people ages 18 and older to engage in inclusive activities, sports and community events.
Changing lives and attitudes
Unified Champion Clubs bring people with and without intellectual disabilities together beyond the playing field. In addition to training and playing recreational sports together, participants are invited to lead alongside each other, working collaboratively as equals.
“When biases are dropped and inclusion is the norm, life’s joys can be shared much more deeply.”
– Sawyer Boulette, Director, Special Olympics Maine Unified Champion Clubs
Not only do these experiences enhanced the quality of life for the Special Olympics athletes, they also open the hearts and minds of the volunteers or “unified partners.” “When biases are dropped and inclusion is the norm, life’s joys can be shared much more deeply,” says Sawyer Boulette, the director of Special Olympics Maine Unified Champion Clubs.
Boulette has been involved with Special Olympics Maine since 2013. After experiencing first-hand the transformative power of inclusive sport, she dreamed of creating more inclusive opportunities for Special Olympics Maine athletes as well as community members without intellectual disabilities. Through that dream, with the generous support of the Maine Masonic Charitable Foundation, the Unified Champion Club was born. Special Olympics Maine has been a pioneer for this work and is leading the way for this nationally recognized program.
Joining the inclusion revolution
The clubs not only foster community through sports but also encourage all community members to participate in the “inclusion revolution” by cheering on participants and raising awareness about the importance of respecting people with intellectual disabilities.
When Unified Champion Clubs were first launched just a few years ago, Robert Wheeler, president of J. Edward Knight insurance agency, wanted to help ensure its success. In 2022 the agency and principals collectively donated over $7,500 to support the program, and they’ve also recruited other businesses to sponsor it.
Wheeler and his staff have been involved with Special Olympics Maine for decades, having sponsored many events and provided direct program funding through the years. With the launch of Unified Champion Clubs, they felt renewed motivated to deepen their commitment to the inclusion revolution.
“I call it inclusion at its best. That day they were not Special Olympics athletes, just fellow members of our team.”
– Robert Wheeler, President, J. Edward Knight
Agency staff demonstrate inclusion by inviting Special Olympics Maine athletes to join their team for fundraising events, such as the annual Lobster Dip, a New Year’s Day dip in the chilly Atlantic Ocean to benefit Special Olympics Maine.
This year J. Edward Knight staff joined Team Freezing for a Reason, captained by Boulette, and helped their team raise the most funds for the Lobster Dip. “Seeing the joy on the faces of the athletes that were part of our team was amazing,” recalls Wheeler. “I call it inclusion at its best. That day they were not Special Olympics athletes, just fellow members of our team.”
Make a difference for people with intellectual disabilities
You can help make a difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. A Make More Happen Award would be used for program supplies, to offset costs associated with participation fees for athletes and to help fund community coordinator positions.