SOPA-CC seeks volunteers for in-person return

The Crawford County chapter of the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, or SOPA-CC, is looking for volunteers to help restart in-person programming at the Arc this spring and summer. The organization provides training and support for athletes with intellectual disabilities to create a space for them to compete and express themselves.

Emily Jones, ’22, a Davies Community Service Leader, is spearheading the effort to recruit Allegheny students to help with the program.

“The athletes have been without in-person training, and so they’re lacking that social interaction,” Jones said. “Volunteers could either help with the sports of their interest or even just social interaction for the athletes because they have been without that for so long. It could be something as simple as a little picnic or cornhole event.”

Jones noted that going virtual — how most organizations and groups adapted to pandemic restrictions — is not as easy of an option for SOPA-CC

“My job as a Davies Leader was to put together some type of virtual opportunity, but a lot of (the athletes) don’t have internet access or they just don’t have the technology in general, or they don’t know how to use that (technology),” Jones said. “Without (volunteers), they won’t be able to be in-person, which most of them do a lot better with being in-person. Even if we were able to do something partially virtual but partially in-person, the volunteers could help them navigate the technology.”

SOPA-CC will be using space provided by the Arc, a community center in Meadville that, according to its website, “promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.”

In addition to a large indoor room with space for social distancing, Jones said the Arc is also offering the Greenspace, an outdoor community venue in downtown Meadville, if athletes and volunteers would be more comfortable outside. Currently, the organization is limited in capacity due to pandemic restrictions, which means that only a few volunteers are needed to get the program started again.

“Right now we’re only allowed to have 10 people in-person (as a) Special Olympics rule until we can show that we’re good with maintaining COVID protocols and everything, but at least three of those 10 have to be volunteers,” Jones said.For students that want to get involved, a form to sign up was posted on MyAllegheny, with a QR code available on posters around campus. Jones encouraged community members to get involved as soon as they could.

“A lot of people are doing research over the summer or they have other jobs that they’re going to be in the area and so for the summer we’re thinking maybe an hour a week or so,” Jones said. “We were hoping to get this started so we can hit the ground running in the fall.”

Even if students are not specifically interested or able to work with the athletics itself, Jones noted that proficiency in any field can be used to improve the program.

“In the past, we did a newsletter that the athletes would write with the help of the volunteers, so we’d appreciate any type of skill set that (the volunteers) would bring,” Jones said.

A prime example of this is Allegheny’s Jazz and Dance Ensemble, which holds an annual benefit concert for SOPA-CC.

“JaDE’s been around for around 10-15 years and we’ve been doing (the concert) every year that we’ve been around,” said Julie Cepec, ’21, who sat on JaDE’s board for the 2019-2020 school year. “We got to a point where we realized we were raising money and we didn’t really know where that money was going. Our advisor, Betsey (Summerfield) suggested to me that we get more in touch with the athletes.”

JaDE included the athletes in the hobby they knew best: dance.

“We do dance classes with Special Olympics athletes and we have a lot of fun doing it,” Cepec said. “Usually in a non-COVID year, we would perform with them at our benefit concert, which is always a lot of fun. Through that whole process we end up making a lot of great connections and friendships.”

Cepec noted that JaDE’s contribution has less to do with the athletics of Special Olympics, but is more in line with its values of inclusivity and freedom for the athletes.

“I was talking with one parent and she was telling me about how her son loves to dance but has only the space of his living room to do so,” Cepec said. “One of our favorite things to do in these dance classes is just to give them the space to move and dance and express themselves. We’ll just throw on some popular songs and just freestyle dance to it. Fostering that community and connection is probably the most important thing that we’ve done.”

According to Cepec, just showing up and being present can make a big difference for the athletes.

“Even if you don’t really feel like you have a skill to bring to it, just being there and being open and being willing to connect with these athletes means the world,” Cepec said. “I’ve gotten so much out of it so I think it’s a really great experience for people to be involved in.”