by Fr. Anthony Yazge and Edward Deeb III
1. Who was the founder of the Special Olympics? Or rather who was involved in the Antiochian Archdiocese's participation in the training camp? Ken Yazge was the NAC Teen SOYO President and I was the NAC Teen SOYO Treasurer at the time. In 1979, with the assistance of Dr. Anthony Bashir, who had connections to Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the actual founder of Special Olympics), we (Ken and I) took a train (as teens 18 & 17 years old) from Washington DC to Philadelphia to meet with the head of Pennsylvania’s Special Olympics. We pitched the idea of using our camp for a week-long sports training camp for Special Olympics. The idea was that this would be an ongoing outreach program of Teen SOYO. As Teen SOYO, we would fundraise and pay for the camp and provide teens to serve as coaches/counselors. We were convinced that we had to have a hands on participatory role as teens. We had the blessing and encouragement of His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP.
The first year of camp (1980) there was a small group of Special Olympics staff/volunteers and the majority of the staff were our teens. The first couple of years about half (8-9) of our teens were from California. We were totally responsible for the athletes in the cabins as well as predominantly given charge of the sports training.
2. What was the mission of this program as aided by NAC Teen SOYO? The reason for establishing the program was two-fold. We felt that it was important to do outreach – to be living the gospel by practicing what we preach and teach – doing hands on ministry. Up to that point, almost everything we did was internal work within the Church. We wanted to witness to the faith and to the faithful of our parishes that this is what God was calling us to do – care for the “least of our brethren.” The other facet is that we wanted to establish a program that would have longevity – that it would outlive our years in SOYO and hopefully outlive us. On a personal note, it has surpassed my wildest expectations and I feel blessed to still be a part of this ministry.
3. When was the program established? Ken and I took office in the summer of 1979 and that fall we had our meeting with Special Olympics. In the summer of 1980 was our first camp. We have held it every year with two exceptions. I don’t remember the year (in the 90’s, I believe) of the first exception but it was due to not being able to arrange a date when the camp was available and Special Olympics was. That year we still did participate with Pennsylvania Special Olympics by sending some of our teens to serve as coaches at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer State Games. The other year was 2009 when we had to cancel due to the Swine Flu at the camp just a week prior to the Special Olympics Camp. The summer of 2011 we held our 30th camp and it was our 32nd year of involvement with Special Olympics Pennsylvania.
4. Where was this program established? (any clergy symposium or church assembly?) I mentioned above some of the history. My memory doesn’t serve me perfectly well, but we must have officially adopted the program at the MidWinter meetings in February 1980. Perhaps someone can find the minutes from that meeting to verify it.
6. Was there anything in particular that was going on in the archdiocese that fueled the involvement in this program? There were a few catalysts. The purchase of the camp in 1979 was a large part, plus the brainstorming of Ken, Dr Bashir and myself. The other part is that as idealistic teens, we felt that the Church wasn’t doing enough for others. I believe it was God-inspired the way things came together:
· The purchase of the camp
· Ken and I wanting to do something more
· Dr Bashir knowing Eunice Kennedy Shriver
· Metropolitan PHILIP giving us his blessing and encouragement
Take any one of those pieces out and it would not have happened.
7. Any extra information about the history of the program would be helpful as well. The fundraising part was a challenge. Teen SOYO had “Tag Day” that we used to do as our annual fundraising campaign throughout the Archdiocese, but it wasn’t specific enough for it to be overly successful. Basically, people would through in a dollar or two to help out Teen SOYO. Once we tied it in to Special Olympics and made it Special Olympics Awareness Day it became much more successful. We were more organized with our solicitation. We used icons to educate people about our faith for SOA Day. We had the teens address the faithful. We made a video that we sent to the parishes for them to use to promote the program.
Another significant part is the continual support from the Order of St Ignatius. It started out by them filling in with our financial shortfall. After a short period of time, they committed $8,000 annually to the program. Almost every year we wouldn’t have been able to hold the camp without the support of the Order.
Our camp (the full title is the SOPA /SOYO Multi-Sports Training Camp [SOPA = Special Olympics Pennsylvania]) is the second longest running program of Special Olympics Pennsylvania. The only program they have that has run longer is their State Summer Games. A few years ago they honored our participation (I think it coincided with their 25th anniversary) and Fr Joseph Purpura represented Teen SOYO at their banquet. This coming May, Special Olympics Pennsylvania is wanting to honor me with their lifetime achievement award. I have told them that they need to honor Teen SOYO. This will be only the second time that Special Olympics Pennsylvania has given this award.
The bottom line is that we have had probably had somewhere between 750 and 1,000 teens serve as coaches and tens to hundreds of thousands of teen involved because of their involvement with SOA Day. We now average about 175 athletes each year at camp. I am guessing that translates to about 3,000 athletes over the years. It is hard to say because many athletes return year after year. That is a testimony to the difference that Teen SOYO is making in the lives of these very special people.
This program has had far reaching effects. Many of our teens after participating in this program have become teachers or Special Educators. It is changing the lives of thousands.
One side note – to this day I still receive and annual Christmas card from an athlete that I worked with in year one of the program. We keep in touch. My life will never be the same and I think that most of our teens who participated in the program would say the same thing.