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By Gary Brown
Division III business session. Joshua Duplechian/NCAA Photos.
While past Division III business sessions have been just as efficient as the 2011 version in San Antonio, they likely haven’t been as emotional.
Before delegates got down to the business of voting on legislation last Saturday, the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee gave them reason to pause by announcing a partnership with Special Olympics that continues the link with the citizenship component of the Division III strategic-positioning platform.
In a poignant display, about two dozen Special Olympics athletes were on hand to help with the announcement, including Jessaca Bond, a young woman who said her involvement in Special Olympics had changed her life. The Special Olympics athletes sat with their SAAC counterparts during the 30-minute presentation that kicked off the business session.
Also on hand was Bill Shumard, the CEO/President of Special Olympics Southern California, who told delegates, “Our national footprints match. You’re going to find that wherever there is a Division III institution, there’s a Special Olympics Program in place.”
Bond, a table-tennis athlete, prompted warm laughter from the crowd when she said how nervous she was speaking in front of about 300 police officers recently, and now here she was, clearly overwhelmed in a ballroom packed with athletics administrators, presidents and student-athletes.
Shumard looked at her and said, “I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t tell you there would be 1,000 people here today.”
The presentation ended with the Special Olympics athletes proceeding through the business session aisles and high-fiving delegates as the NCAA championships theme music played on the overhead speakers.
“To be sure, there were some moist eyes in the house,” said Division III Vice President Dan Dutcher. “Our SAAC members worked hard to coordinate not only this event but also this partnership, and their efforts resonated with our membership.”
The relationship with Special Olympics comes after a successful SAAC-driven community-service initiative that raised more than $140,000 for victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
SAAC chair Marie Godwin said the group first began exploring a potential national community-service initiative in 2008.
“At that time, we recognized that Division III student-athletes were already active in their communities and we wanted to find a way to better demonstrate our effectiveness nationally,” she said.
The committee established five criteria to select a partner organization for the project:
“After researching the possibilities, we identified Special Olympics as the organization that best aligned with SAAC’s vision,” said Godwin. “Special Olympics Programs are offered in every state and involve hands-on interaction and physical activity.”
Godwin, a former volleyball student-athlete at Macalester, said Division III SAAC members will work with their conferences to oversee Special Olympics community-service efforts and coordinate at least one conference SAAC-led activity during the academic year.
Members prefer that the activity involve hands-on interaction between Division III student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes.
“The committee believes this will maximize the benefits of the partnership for both parties,” Godwin said. “However, in instances where hands-on interaction is not practical, conferences may also engage in fundraising efforts to benefit their state Special Olympics organizations.”
The Division III SAAC will collect and report data regarding the activities of their conferences, including a description of the activity, number of volunteer hours and amount of money earned.
Shumard was ecstatic about the relationship in his remarks at the business session.
“You’re going to see that Special Olympics represents everything that’s good and right about sports,” he said. “Our athletes love to compete, just like NCAA student-athletes do, and they do so with dignity and respect. There already are a lot of relationships between Special Olympics and Division III institutions, but we’re also going to forge new relationships.
“We need you, NCAA student-athletes and administrators, to become ambassadors for this program on your campuses.”
Hope College President Jim Bultman, who took over as chair of the Division III Presidents Council upon the conclusion of the Convention, said the SAAC’s initiative is representative of the Division III identity campaign.
“It’s a perfect fit for Division III and can be very helpful for both organizations,” he said. “The warmth that we observed during the announcement with the presence of the Special Olympics athletes was indicative of what we’re likely to see throughout this year. It will be wonderful to watch this play out on all our campuses.”