ORLANDO, Fla. (FNN NEWS) – Special Olympics Florida will host its annual Champions’ Gala at the Four Seasons Resort at Walt Disney World Orlando Saturday night. The organization’s flagship fundraising event celebrates athletes, corporations, coaches, and community leaders that have made an impact on the organization and in the lives of the Special Olympics athletes. In anticipation of the gala, Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock shared with Florida National News her expectations for the gala and her vision for the future of Special Olympics Florida.
THE 2018 CHAMPION’S GALA
Wheelock is excited for this year’s Champions’ Gala and explained that the annual gala celebrates leaders, with honorees including Athlete of the Year, Coach of Year and Unified Partner of Year. She also shared that a new honoree will be added this year: Health Partner of the Year.
PRESIDENT WHEELOCK’S VISION FOR SPECIAL OLYMPICS FLORIDA
Wheelock’s vision for Special Olympics Florida (SOF) is to give every special needs athlete access to the program and for each to benefit from it. But Wheelock wants people to know that SOF is about more than just sports–the organization also offers leadership opportunities and health exams for athletes. 10,000 health exams were given last year alone. SOF offers early start opportunities for individuals as young as two years old, and also trains seniors 88 years and older. For Wheelock, SOF “enhances individuals’ lives and communities.”
SOF saw steady growth in athlete enrollment from 21,000 in 2012 to over 48,000 as of September 2018, a more-than-double increase over the last six years.
In the goal of enhancing individuals’ lives, SOF recently announced its Unified Sports® program, which teams up athletes without intellectual disabilities with athletes who do.
“In the next five years, I see Special Olympics Florida being the model for inclusion in Florida,” Wheelock expressed. Her five-year vision additionally includes increasing awareness of what SOF partners are doing for inclusion.
Also occurring in that five-year window is the 2022 U.S. Special Olympics USA game, which was announced on May 18, 2018 at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Roughly 60,000 athletes will compete in the game and, according to Wheelock, there could potentially be 100,000 people involved with SOF by that year.
Athlete leader Maryann Gonzalez, who was one of the first athletes to come up with a state game, has been an SOF athlete leader for forty-five years. “Special Olympics has done so much for me,” she said in a recent phone interview with FNN News. “It made me grow as person.”
Gonzalez currently trains aging adults in a program which has them compete in eight track events in the fall. She additionally participates in a leadership program which helps athletes become athlete leaders like she did. “[We] show them there are no barriers. There’s always potential somewhere, whether on or off the field.”
“Special Olympics Florida’s pillars are growth, quality, sustainability and awareness,” Wheelock told FNN News. “And we intend to continue growing in all four areas.”
Mellissa Thomas is Editor for Florida National News. | firstname.lastname@example.org