Kelley Schreiner had just finished a 50-minute strength and conditioning workout Wednesday when she hopped in the car with her dad and headed for a volunteer shift at Down Syndrome Indiana. After that, she was on to a ballroom dance class and then practice with her Special Olympics track and field team.
There isn’t really a time Schreiner can remember when Special Olympics wasn’t part of her life, a huge part. She joined when she was 8 years old and through the years has participated in basketball, softball, track, flag football, volleyball, bowling and swimming.
“I like Special Olympics because of all the people I get to meet,” said Schreiner, 30, who goes by the nickname Kelster, “and some that I already know.”
Schreiner doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of Washington politics. But as she talked about the four points she scored in her basketball game last week — one 2-pointer that she said should have been a 3-pointer — Washington was abuzz talking about Special Olympics, too.
On Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went before a congressional subcommittee to defend a budget proposal that would eliminate all $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics. Headquartered in Washington, the Special Olympics runs programs for more than 5 million athletes in more than 170 countries.
Critics called the proposal part of a “morally” corrupt budget. National sports media, many whom have covered Special Olympics and Unified Sports, came out in force on social media against the cuts. Advocates for the special-needs community could only hope that version of the budget isn’t passed.
That appeared to be the case Wednesday, when the Republican senator of the subcommittee that sets funding for the Department of Education rejected the call for cuts to Special Olympics.
“Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri in a statement reported by The Hill.
Blunt went on to say: “I was just at the World Games and saw … what a huge impact the organization has on athletes, their families, and their communities.
His sentiment was echoed in Indiana.
“My thoughts are very strong on this. Special Olympics has social benefits that are very hard to replicate in any other environment,” said Marilyn Bull, a developmental pediatrician with Riley Children’s Health. “It gives these athletes an opportunity to win when they might not win in other sections of life.”
How Schreiner would feel if she didn’t have Special Olympics: “Oh gosh,” she said. “Heartbroken.”
CEO: ‘Special Olympics will happen’
Inside Special Olympics Indiana on Wednesday, president and CEO Jeff Mohler started crunching the numbers. If that nearly $18 million cut were passed, Indiana would lose $250,000 in federal dollars.
That money is used for Special Olympics Indiana’s school program, called Champions Together, a partnership with the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
As part of that program, there are two sanctioned unified sports, track and field, which began competing in 2013 with 13 teams and now has more than 100, and flag football.
The first unified flag football championship was in October at the Colts complex with Bedford North Lawrence taking a 50-26 victory over Tippecanoe Valley.
In addition to the sports portion of Champions Together, the school programming includes anti-bullying classes, disability awareness and inclusive student leadership projects, said Mohler.
If the $250,000 were cut, it would slash about 50 percent of the budget for the school programs. DeVos’ proposal would not affect local Special Olympics sports, Mohler said. He said cuts would likely slow the school program’s growth, which in six years has reached 262,000 students in grades K-12 with and without disabilities.
“Special Olympics will happen no matter what happens in Washington, D.C.,” said Mohler. “This is step one in a long process for finalizing that federal budget. We trust the process. We trust the Indiana members of Congress.”
IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox responded to IndyStar in an e-mail regarding the cuts.
“The IHSAA is committed to providing opportunities for our students with and without intellectual disabilities,” he said. “While these cuts may have financial impact on the association, my greater concern rests with our friends at Special Olympics and the thousands of individuals they diligently serve.”
Unmatched impact of Special Olympics
Mitch Bonar met his best friend because of Special Olympics and Champions Together. He gained a lot of confidence, he said, confidence to apply to colleges. This fall, the 22-year-old who was born with cerebral palsy, will start classes as a full-time student at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Bonar, who has participated in Special Olympics since sixth grade, was on the Unified track and football teams at Noblesville. He travels to speak at high schools about the inclusion programs and is on the board of Special Olympics Indiana.
“Special Olympics means acceptance and respect of others because without Special Olympics, I never would have met my best friend,” Bonar said. “It made such a positive and strong impact in my life, but especially the inclusion program.”
The idea of cutting any portion of Special Olympics funding leaves Salem High School basketball coach Mike Brown shaking his head. Brown runs camps for Special Olympics athletes and has a stepson with Down Syndrome.
“At a time when we finally have made great strides with Special Olympics all over the world, it’s ridiculous to me that we would cut funding for Special Olympics,” said Brown. “They’re called special for a reason. These are great people who add great value to our community.”
His stepson Jalen Pigg has been fighting leukemia. What Jalen looks forward to more than anything else are basketball and his friends at Special Olympics, Brown said.
That is often the case with Special Olympics athletes, who get an unmatched opportunity to build social skills and be proud of their abilities, said Riley’s Dr. Bull.
“Special Olympics is one of the few areas where individuals with disabilities can participate and be a true part of not only teams but individual sports,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to take their family to an event that is theirs, that they are the lead in.”
DeVos: ‘Cannot fund every worthy program’
Those who have covered Special Olympics in the media have seen firsthand the impact the organization has on athletes.
“I cannot think of a more disheartening piece of news,” tweeted Seth Davis, who covers college basketball for CBS Sports. “I have covered the Special Olympics. It is amazing. This is not about politics, it is about who and what we value as a nation. This is absolutely disgraceful.”
DeVos said Wednesday the funding cuts proposal was being “misrepresented,” by its critics.
“Make no mistake: we are focused every day on raising expectations and improving outcomes for infants and toddlers, children and youth with disabilities,” she said in a statement.
She went on to say the budget includes a $13.2 billion request for IDEA funding, which goes to states to assure “students with disabilities have the resources and support they need.”
“The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. I love its work and I have personally supported its mission,” DeVos said. “Because of its important work, it is able to raise more than $100 million every year. There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Richard Schreiner, who is on the board of Special Olympics Indiana and father to Kelley Schreiner, said getting lost in all the budget talk is the importance of Special Olympics’ impact on people without disabilities.
It teaches acceptance of others as they are, particularly the Champions Together program, which would lose the federal funding.
“Inside the schools, the impact on the kids without a disability is just as powerful,” he said. “I can tell you Special Olympics has just been an incredible program for individuals with disabilities. But these athletes, I guarantee you, are having more of an impact on those without disabilities than we will ever know.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via e-mail: email@example.com.