In addition to practices and DIII competitions, Highlander athletes have been putting in some extra time on the field. And this time, they’re rooting for those on the field with them.
As part of a new partnership between Highlander Athletics and Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA), Cairn teams scrimmaged with intellectually disabled youth twice this fall. The first scrimmage, a soccer game hosted by Highlander baseball players on September 11, attracted nearly 30 Special Olympics participants. One month later, Cairn’s men’s basketball team held a flag football scrimmage for more than a dozen SOPA participants on October 8.
“This event turned out to be a great testimony to the local community for Cairn,” said Kathy Reilly Adkins ’13, who serves as SOPA’s flag football sports director and coach. “So many parents commented on how impressive the young men [from Cairn’s baseball team] were. Then, at practice last night, the athletes talked and talked about how much fun they had.”
The Special Olympics partnership started this fall under the guidance of Associate Director of Athletics Gregg Fanus ’04, who also serves as the Health and Physical Education program advisor and assistant professor in the School of Education. As part of his role, Fanus develops and fosters “community connections,” service opportunities for athletes and coaches both on- and off-campus.
With a vision for building relationships and long-term partnerships, Fanus’ plans for the SOPA partnership range from soccer clinics to simply attending sporting events together. “So often, youth with disabilities wind up feeling isolated and being excluded from the kinds of activities their same-age peers are enjoying,” he explained. “For them to be invited to a volleyball or soccer game, to sit with athletes they recognize and know from scrimmages and clinics — that can be a huge blessing and encouragement for both the youth and their families.”
Supporting Foster Families
Partnerships with the Special Olympics are not uncommon for NCAA athletic departments, but Fanus’ vision for community connections goes beyond the usual. On October 15th, over 30 children and their foster families flooded campus for a game day, hosted by Cairn’s athletics department and HPEC (Health and PE Club) in partnership with Bethany Christian Services (BCS).
The idea for the event was pitched by Yunn Kang, dean of the School of Business and board member of Bethany Christian Services of the Greater Delaware Valley. “Philadelphia alone has over six thousand children in the foster care system,” Kang shares, “and one of our goals as a board is to support those children and their foster families however we can.” Four times a year, this support comes in the form of recreational events where foster families can fellowship and relax together.
“Of course, these events always have games for the children, typically run by board volunteers,” Kang explains, “and I got to thinking that our HPEC students, who are professionally trained to run games and sports activities for youth, would be much better at it than we are.”
Kang and Fanus hope that October’s game day was just the first BCS event involving Highlander athletes. “I would love for Cairn’s student athletes and HPEC members to be involved in all four annual events,” Kang shared. “It’s not only a great opportunity for the foster families; it’s an opportunity for us to bring members of the community to campus and allow them to see the mission of the University lived out firsthand.”
Why More Service?
All Cairn students already participate in weekly community service or ministry as an integral part of their education — so why launch an initiative focusing on service through athletics?
“So much of college focuses on preparing students to serve Christ after graduation,” Fanus said. “But for most student-athletes, this is the prime of their athletic careers. A student might be a future businessperson, but right now, he’s a basketball player. Because of that strong identity as a Highlander and team member, athletics has a unique opportunity to reinforce the message: Whatever you are, you do that for Christ. Athletics is not a compartmentalized part of their student experience or, more importantly, their Christian walk.”
Fanus continues to seek ways to build Cairn Athletics’ relationship with SOPA, BCS, and the children they serve. In the future, he hopes to explore additional opportunities in Bucks County and the Philadelphia region.