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Special Olympics: Helping Young Athletes Grow and Reach their Full Potential

CVS Caremark All Kids Can spoke with Darcie Mersereau, Vice President of Health Programs for Special Olympics about the Healthy Young Athletes program, which provides health care services and support, early childhood intervention, and preventative education to children with intellectual disabilities aged 2 1/2-7 years old. CVS Caremark All Kids Can has awarded a $50,000 grant to Special Olympics to help expand Healthy Young Athletes clinics across the country.

All Kids Can blog: Tell us about your work with Special Olympics.

Darcie Mersereau: I have worked with Special Olympics for eight years and for the past four years, I have helped develop Special Olympics’ health programs, which is the largest non-sport program within Special Olympics. We host approximately 750 health clinics each year. In addition to providing health services to our athletes, we also work to recruit local doctors, dentists, optometrists, and other health professionals for our local clinics and provide training about how best to treat children with intellectual disabilities.

AKCB: Is there anything unique about your health programs?

DM: What’s really special about the Healthy Young Athletes and Healthy Athletes programs are their sustainability (Healthy Athletes serves Special Olympics athletes aged 8 and up). The health professionals who staff our events undergo training then bring back new knowledge and skills to their practices to best serve and treat their local communities. The health programs really instill a legacy of health throughout local communities for children with intellectual disabilities.

AKCB: So, the programs help both athletes and medical professionals?

DM: Absolutely! They not only provide health services to our athletes, but also offer medical training and health education to local clinicians and provide a wealth of data that we use to help advocate for people of all abilities. With the knowledge and data we gain through our health programs, we talk to government officials, policy leaders and heads of medical schools to continually develop best health practices for children with disabilities.

AKCB: That’s really amazing and such a big help to communities nationwide. Special Olympics’ reach really extends beyond sports.

DM: There are so many great benefits from youth and team sports; health being just one of them! Early health interventions help everyone from the children experiencing the examinations to their doctors, teachers and parents, and provide a better experience for everyone overall.

It’s really amazing that we have developed such diverse health-focused programs, especially since health programs weren’t an original focus for Special Olympics.

AKCB: How did Special Olympics get into the field?

DM: Special Olympics’ health programs began in 1995 when a dentist and an optometrist asked if they could run a clinic at our World Games in New Haven, Connecticut. No one knew what to expect. It was a real wake up call, because so many health problems were prevalent. That’s when Special Olympics realized there was an opportunity to do something about health and wellness for children with intellectual disabilities. So, we stepped in.

AKCB: It seems like working with sports and health would go hand-in-hand, right?

DM:  Sports, of course, is a great platform for promoting health, via a framework that resonates with our athletes, since high performance on the playing field requires good health. And sports are really a natural fit with health, since it’s one of the most important ways to prevent childhood obesity. Recent data from CDC’s Vital Signs indicate that adults with disabilities are less likely to be active and more likely to experience chronic diseases than people without disabilities. Sports provide a fun and engaging form of physical activity, and establishing those habits at an early age can lead to a lifetime of staying active.

AKCB: All Kids Can is extremely proud to help expand the Healthy Young Athletes program. Can you tell us a little more about the program and how it’s helping children of all abilities on their path to better health?

DM: The Healthy Young Athletes program provides health care services and support, early childhood intervention, and preventative education to children with intellectual disabilities aged 2 1/2-7 years old.

The funding from CVS Caremark All Kids Can will help support the development of a valuable toolkit of resources that will be distributed to all Special Olympics Programs. It will also help expand our program and add two new health disciplines FUNfitness (physical fitness) and Health Promotion (nutrition, sun safety)—to our existing clinics, which are Opening Eyes (vision), Healthy Hearing (audiology) and Special Smiles (dental), and it will help kids of all abilities receive health examinations  and consultations.

AKCB: What type of impact do you think these health clinics and programs will have on your young athletes?

DM: Children with intellectual disabilities are already facing huge barriers. If they are struggling with undiagnosed health issues and are also unable to communicate the level of pain or discomfort they are in, their chances for success are even less. If they cannot hear the teacher or see the blackboard and these issues are not addressed, they will continue to fall further behind.

What better time to address health issues than when athletes are young? Early intervention is key to  identifying developmental issues and to helping ensure children are able to reach their full potential.

AKCB: That’s so very true. Do you see these programs having an impact on entire families as well?

DM: Yes, the programs also engage families and help them understand their children’s perspectives, which help parents become better advocates for their child and his or her needs. Keep in mind that when children are young, parents may still be figuring out which behaviors might be related to the child’s disability and which might be due to a health concern, especially if the child is non-verbal. The opportunity to engage with doctors and have their questions answered can be as valuable, if not more so, than the examination itself.

And, these examinations offer a comfortable space for families and children. Special Olympics is all about fun, teamwork, self-confidence and celebration! Our events offer children an alternative to a doctor’s office which might make them nervous or uncomfortable, and parents may be more relaxed to talk openly with the physician and ask questions.

AKCB: What is in the future for Special Olympics’ health programs?

DM: Working with Special Olympics’ health programs really feeds my soul. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still so much we don’t know about the health of people with intellectual disabilities. And, we hope that these programs not only improve the health of the athletes who attend the events, but also improve the health of future generations, as we continually look to learn more and provide the best health services possible.

All Kids Can thanks Darcie Mersereau for speaking with us about her work with Special Olympics and the Healthy Young Athletes program.