"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmakers are Chris Clark, area director of Santa Clarita Valley Special Olympics, and Melanie Cross, a clinical director with Special Olympics International. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You've got an event coming up. What, when, where?
Clark: Our event is on May 13. It's at six different venues. It's actually at Newhall Park, Hart High School, Placerita Junior High School, Vista Valencia Golf Course, the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center and the Boys and Girls Club of Newhall.
It's the 2006 Special Olympics Spirit Games. We're going to have 800 athletes competing in six different sports: bocce, basketball, tennis, track and field, swimming and golf. It's a huge community event. Athletes come from all throughout Southern California to this event and they compete. It's a regional qualifier for Special Olympics Southern California, so once they go here, they can go to the Summer Games in Long Beach in June.
Signal: You coordinate all of this for the Santa Clarita Valley?
Clark: I get the pleasure of coordinating about 650 volunteers. A committee of about 30 people have put a lot of work into this, so it's not just me. And Melanie is taking a big role this year, too, with the Spirit Games.
Signal: Melanie, where do you fit into this?
Cross: I am doing the Healthy Athletes piece. I went to a training in Pennsylvania for International Special Olympics. I'm part of a group of clinicians, and we gather data on the athletes and we promote health. The data has been used for research and to guide "best practices," and if I comply with International Special Olympics, it can also bring money back to the Santa Clarita Valley.
Signal: How are Special Olympians matched up with whatever event would be appropriate for them?
Clark: Our athletes are put together on teams of same ability levels. So if we have a very high-functioning athlete, we're going to group them with other high-functioning athletes, and then they compete against other high-functioning athletes. That way, we don't have a high-functioning athlete competing against a low-functioning athlete. They're actually bracketed and divisioned that way.
That's for our team sports. For individual sports, they're also grouped with athletes with the same ability level. That way there's not one clear winner; there's actually a competition of same ability levels.
Signal: Many people know the name, Special Olympics but Special Olympics is the organization. The event is the Spirit Games, right?
Clark: That's right. ... A lot of people come up to me and say, "When is Special Olympics?" It is a year-round organization. Here in Santa Clarita, we have 17 different sports, and we host at least 12 practices per year. That's a total of 200 practices per year that we host. And for every one of those sports, we attend at least three competitions within Southern California. That's over 54 competitions that we attend each year.
So next time, when somebody says to you, "When is Special Olympics?" you can say, "All the time."
Signal: How many Special Olympians are there?
Clark: In Santa Clarita Valley, we have 450 athletes. In Southern California, we have 11,000 athletes. In the United States, we have 2 million athletes. And in the world, we have 3.5 million athletes.
It's a global movement, but it's a grass-roots organization. Everything that we do here locally is managed through our office and through a committee. Everything that we spend here, we have to raise here, as well.
Signal: What is a Special Olympian?
Cross: It's anyone who has been identified with (an) intellectual or physical disability who is over 8 years old. The average age of an athlete worldwide is 37. So a lot of people are under the conception that it's kids. It's not kids. It's all kinds of people.
The first time we did bocce ball and I took a team to Spirit Games, I had someone who was 10 who had acrondoplasia, which is dwarf. She was very little. And I had one man and he was 71 years old. It's a wide variety of people, is what I would have to say.
Signal: What kinds of intellectual or physical afflictions do these people have?
Cross: All types. The guidelines are that they've been identified by an agency or have received special instruction. So it's more of a "rule in" than a "rule out." If someone comes to us and they want to be in, we typically find a way in. We don't rule anybody out.
The wonderful thing about Special Olympics for the olympians (is that) they don't ever have to raise any money. They don't ever have to pay a fee. They do, however, have to come up with one health physical.
It's very basic and very simple, and that's something where Chris and I became involved with the Healthy Athletes initiative, because 50 percent of the athletes are people who ask for applications (but) don't complete them in the Santa Clarita Valley. We're thinking the only reason, since there's no fee, it must be the physical. That's where we've been brainstorming and trying to bring about a way for more people to come.
Clark: If these potential athletes don't have regular access to medical coverage, which we find is quite often, we want to provide that medical coverage for them. If they need to have a physical, then we're going to provide a physician to have the physical done, whether it's at one of the local medical offices or (at) something called a Med Fest, where we actually bring the physicians and the medical doctors to a practice or to a competition and we can have our athletes have the physicals there. The physical just makes sure that they're capable of competing in different sports.
Signal: Melanie, as a registered nurse, do you perform the physicals?
Cross: I don't do the physicals. A physician needs to sign off on the physicals.
Signal: Are there more than 450 people in the Santa Clarita Valley who might be eligible?
Cross: Absolutely. When you look at it statistically, at least 1 percent of the population would qualify. We're at (about) 300,000 people in this valley, so the 450 does not encompass everybody who could or who wants to participate.
Clark: And there are barriers there, whether it's outreach, whether potential athletes have to pay for our service it's completely free or if it's getting a medical doctor to sign off on competing and practicing. There's a barrier there that we're trying to break.
Signal: Do you think that some people who would be eligible just aren't interested in sports?
Clark: Oh, absolutely. Just like our general population, there are people who might be able to play sports, but they just don't want to because it doesn't interest them.
One of the unique qualities of Special Olympics is, it gets all our athletes out into the community and also gets them physically fit. For a lot of our athletes, this is their only social interaction for a week. If you ask them how their week is going, they say, "Oh! I've got Special Olympics tonight for two hours, and that's going to be great!" So we really want to do this and we really want to provide those physical outlets for our athletes.
Signal: With the name "Olympics," do you find that people have the perception that it's an elite thing that's just for the best athletes? Who gets to compete in the Spirit Games?
Clark: Anyone who is a Special Olympics athlete within Southern California. We had about 1,200 people pre-register for our games, and then it dwindles down a little bit, just because they don't complete (during) the season throughout Southern California. Right now we're at about 850 athletes from throughout Southern California. All of our athletes are competing.
As you can imagine, some teams drop out because they're not able to go, or they have a competing event that day. But we're currently at about 850 athletes who are going to be out there. And we need the community's support. The community of Santa Clarita (is) such a giving community and not just by giving money, but also by giving time. It's easy sometimes for people to write a check for $20, but to give a day's worth of time is just as valuable for us.
Our athletes are clearly why we're here, but our volunteers are how we are here.
Signal: So it's not just paid staff who will be running the event on Saturday?
Clark: I wish we had the budget to have 650 or 800 volunteers out there for the day. But no, it's clearly our volunteers who are our movement, and they are why we're able to do what we do.
Signal: Why would somebody want to come and volunteer?
Clark: I think I'll tell the story of how I got involved with Special Olympics.
I worked for Six Flags theme parks (as) a capital analyst. My responsibility was to, any time there was a new roller coaster, a new building, I would do the financial management. I would track all the invoices. ... Six Flags wanted us to go out into the community and volunteer with different organizations. I did, for a couple of different organizations, but I had two days off and I called the Special Olympics and I said, "OK, you can have me for two entire days, and you can put me wherever you want." Well, they had me picking up trash at the Spirit Games three years ago and I said, "That's fine. I'll do that."
I got so hooked by just the limited interaction that I had with the athletes, that I became an assistant coach and then a coach, and then a committee member. A couple of years ago, when this job opened up and they approached me, it took me (one) second to say, "This is what I'm supposed to be doing in my life at this time. I can apply my business skills to a nonprofit organization and see if I can succeed in (taking) this organization to the next step." And I've never looked back.
I love my job and clearly, we put a lot of work and volunteers put a lot of effort into it. If they go out for the day whether it's picking up trash or serving food or being the scorekeeper or timekeeper they get so much back in return.
Signal: What about you, Melanie? As a nurse, couldn't you make more money elsewhere?
Cross: I don't make any money at Special Olympics. I'm a 100-percent volunteer. It's just my passion.
And when Chris was talking, it reminds me of one of my first interactions. I was asked to go pick up a 52-year-old man for a dance and take him to LARC Ranch. I had to get the day off work and I thought, What am I doing? It's a Saturday night, I'm single, I'm 30. What am I doing? I'm picking up some 52-year-old man. And I got there and his mother came out and she thanked me and she said, "Do you know that nobody has asked him to go anywhere since high school?" And it hit me just to the core of my being. It's not about me.
This gives me meaning and purpose. I have recruited some awesome volunteers for my Healthy Athletes initiative. I have Dr. Gene Dorio coming, Dr. Patty Wells, both excellent clinicians. I have Thomas Burton, the head of physical therapy from Providence Holy Cross. I have a nurse coming from Palm Desert. I have some awesome volunteers coming. We work all the time to promote health, whatever our area of specialty is and frequently people listen and they're like, "Yeah, but" and they go out and do whatever they want to.
But the athletes are so hungry for the information (and) interaction, they take what you say like gold and they do it. And they live it.
We have the potential to change lives. Health promotion is how we can literally turn society around. The increase of diabetes and obesity that stuff can be turned around because these athletes will listen to us. I've seen it.
Clark: One of the things that Melanie has brought to the table for Spirit Games this year is, we're going to be doing BMI (body mass index) screenings for our athletes who visit the Healthy Athletes area. If they have a high BMI level, we're going to give them a pedometer and we're going to explain to them, "OK, now go ahead and do 10,000 steps a day," or "Go ahead and do 15,000 steps a day." We want to find a way to help these athletes in any way possible.
We're also talking about smoking cessation, where we try to teach them about what it is to smoke, how it affects your lungs and everything else; and sun safety. "Make sure you wear sunscreen." I'm pretty susceptible to sunburns. We want to teach our athletes that, as well. So there are all different levels of what we're going to be doing for the athletes during that day.
Signal: Are most of the coaches volunteers?
Clark: All of the coaches are volunteers. We currently have 250 coaches in the Santa Clarita Valley. We have about 400 throughout the entire year. ... They're track coaches, they're bocce coaches, they're golf coaches, they're swimming coaches. A lot of times, we get high school students who are part of the swim team or the tennis team to come out and coach. Then we have those die-hard coaches who just love it, and they're here year after year and season after season. So coaching is definitely one way you can do it.
We have committee members who put on an event like this that costs $30,000 and have all these community members involved. We have to have a committee of people to plan this event. We have a charity golf tournament that we have a committee for. For (Spirit Games), we need people who are going to be food handlers, we have people who need to supervise the athletes, we have people who need to be scorers, timers. Every task of a major event, we need a volunteer.
Signal: Picking up the trash too?
Clark: We're always looking for the next person to pick up the trash.
Signal: So who do people call to get involved?
Clark: They can contact our office at 253-2121. We're looking for volunteers and we'll definitely put them to work.
Cross: One point I've made to people who have wanted to participate, but they just don't have the time or the energy or even, in my case, some of my patients have heard me talking about it and have wanted to come and they're just too sick, and I've said, "Just come and cheer. Because if you just come and see the parade and just cheer, the athletes live for that. It's something that I guarantee you it will change you."
Clark: Our olympics, our Special Olympics, to these athletes, it's the Olympics. We have an opening ceremony, we have medals that are given, we have local law enforcement officers who actually place the awards and the medals and the ribbons on our athletes. So this is the Olympics to these athletes, and to me it's the Olympics, also.
Signal: If our readers want to be there to cheer, when and where should they go?
Clark: Our opening ceremonies are at 9 a.m., and we have a very big opening ceremony surprise.
It's at Hart High School track. You can come to the Newhall Park area, and then we'll route you to the opening ceremonies area. Last year we had two F-16s fly overhead in formation during our opening ceremonies, and we had a sheriff's helicopter land with the Olympic torch in hand. We had the FBI, the CHP, the Sheriff's Department run around the track at Hart High School with the Olympic torch. And then we had Diane Gonzales, who is an FBI agent, light the cauldron.
When the cauldron was lit and "The Star Spangled Banner" was being sung, it was just totally moving. I'm getting chills just talking about it.
Signal: If the event costs $30,000 and there's no fee to participants, how is Special Olympics funded?
Clark: Special Olympics is funded through the local community. We don't get any funding from our governing organization. People think "Special Olympics" and they think that we're well-funded.
Signal: The International Olympic Committee must fund it, right?
Clark: Not. We're chartered by the International Olympic Committee there are only two agencies that are chartered, Special Olympics and Paralympics that can use "Olympics" in their name. But we receive no funding from them whatsoever.
We're a grass-roots organization. We have local fundraisers. We have golf tournaments. We have Tip-a-Cop, where we have sheriff's officers come and they're the waiters for the evening, and any tips they get, they donate back to Special Olympics. We receive money through grants; we receive money through eScrip. It's a hodgepodge of raising money. But everything is raised locally.
One of the great things about Special Olympics is that everything that is raised local, stays local. We don't have to pay anything to our governing body. We don't receive any money from the governing body, but we don't have to pay anything to the governing body, either. So if we raise money locally, it benefits the local athletes directly. It buys buses, it buys uniforms, it puts on these competitions.
Spirit Games is only one competition that we host. We actually host 12 competitions throughout the year. We have an ice-skating tournament, we have a soccer tournament, various other tournaments. Spirit Games is clearly our largest competition with the most athletes. Getting money from all these different sources is always a challenge, but it's well worth it.
Signal: Do you have a Web site that lists these events?
Clark: We do. It's sosc.org/santaclarita.html. It talks about all of our competitions. People can call our office and we can e-mail the calendar to them, as well.
Signal: You have a local Santa Clarita Valley board of directors?
Clark: We don't have a board of directors, but what we have is a committee. It's a management committee that helps us put on the event and gives us guidance.
Our board of directors is actually Southern California Special Olympics board of directors. (Unlike) some of the other local organizations that have local board of directors and they have an executive director who reports to the board of directors, I'm an area director, and I report to the senior vice president of Special Olympics.
Signal: You mentioned LARC Ranch, which houses developmentally disabled adults. Tell us about your partnerships.
Clark: LARC Ranch is clearly a good example. We have over 90 athletes coming from LARC Ranch. Their activities director, Steve Bratzel, is a good friend of ours, and so is Kathy Sturkey, the executive director. We have partnerships through Pleasantview, through Avenues, through a couple of different sources. LARC Ranch is clearly our largest. It's a natural partnership because they want activities where their clients can go, and we want athletes we can serve.
Signal: Do you involve the participants' families in some way?
Clark: Absolutely. The mission of Special Olympics is to provide sports training competition to individuals with intellectual disabilities. But going deeper, we provide services for the families where they can come with the athletes.
We have dances and we have social events. Special Olympics for some of our athletes that's what they do. If it weren't for Special Olympics, some of them might be sitting at home watching television all week, instead of actually interacting with their peers. It provides social activities (and) interaction, which is very important, with their peers.
Signal: From a medical perspective, what are the biggest challenges among people who might be eligible for Special Olympics but aren't involved?
Cross: Usually they just need to know about it, or they need a way to get there.
Signal: Are there ailments that are more common to them, than to the general population?
Cross: This population is fragile. They are fragile. Typically they do have other medical issues, diagnoses. A 71-year-old athlete, I was very happy to have him, but it's not typical of these athletes to be that old. They do get sick, and I've had athletes I've admitted to the hospital as a nurse.
It's one thing that really motivates me to try and get out there and promote good health to keep them out of the hospitals. Because they're so frightened. I mean, we're all frightened when we go to the hospital, but if you can only imagine, they're very frightened.
Signal: Other than people who live at LARC Ranch, if a Special Olympian is of working age, does he typically have a job? If somebody is of high school age, is he typically in high school?
Clark: Yes and no. If they're high school age, they're in high school. If they're of job age, yes or no, depending upon their ability level.
Pleasantview is an organization that provides job services, as well as LARC Industries, which is affiliated with LARC Ranch, and they provide job resources. You'll find our athletes at Target, you'll find our athletes at Smart & Final; they are two huge partners. Locally, there's the Mayor's Committee for the Employment of Individuals With Disabilities, which we're a part of, and we have those people come into our office and help us out by folding paperwork and folding envelopes and everything else.
But you'll find our athletes in the community everywhere. It's really a great cause.
Signal: What's the biggest challenge for Special Olympics going forward?
Clark: I think our biggest challenges is outreach not only with athletes, but with volunteers and coaches. We're always looking for athletes. And since we're always looking for athletes, we're always looking for volunteers to be coaches. I think that is our biggest challenge.
I think anybody can say funding is the biggest challenge, but as we move forward, it's getting new athletes. We have a very strong athlete base. It's not like we're losing athletes. Every year, we're getting more and more athletes, but we want to continue to do that. We don't want to grow so fast that we don't have the infrastructure to allow for growth, but we want to create growth.
If there is an athlete in Santa Clarita who wants to be in Special Olympics, I'll go out there and coach his sport, or we'll make it possible to have these athletes in sports. We don't want someone to be sitting at home, watching television and eating bon bons or eating Cheez-Its or something. We want people to be physically fit, we want to provide healthy athlete services as we're doing now. We really want to have an impact on these athletes' lives.
Signal: Does our valley have the medical facilities and services to meet these people's needs as our valley grows? And is Special Olympics going to be able to meet their needs?
Cross: I think Special Olympics will rise to the occasion, but I don't think this valley has the medical facilities that are needed. We don't have it now.
Signal: Where are we in terms of meeting the needs of the current population?
Cross: One of the reasons the Healthy Athletes initiative came about is because there is a common myth that because this population interacts with medical professionals all the time, they have good services. Actually, the converse is true. They don't have good access to services. There are communication barriers. Those barriers are even bigger when they go to interact with health care facilities.
So that is one other way that I'm recruiting. I have a whole class of students who are coming (to Spirit Games), and it's a very appropriate place for students and medical professionals to interact, to sharpen your assessment skills and sharpen your communication skills. Because it's not something that's taught in school, and it's something that is so needed.
Clark: It is needed. Not to just provide those services to the athletes, but just like Melanie said, to provide the resources, the ability to know what the athletes are about.
About a year ago or so, we had an athlete who took a fall at softball practice and got skinned up. I took her to one of the local medical offices, and she actually had a broken finger. But the (response) that we got, I was concerned about. They had me clean off the athlete. They had me wash off the athlete. They were worried about what they were doing with the athlete. And that was a concern for me.
Signal: What will people see on Saturday?
Clark: Go to Newhall Park and what you'll see, you can't even imagine. You're going to see people inspire greatness. That is truly what's going to happen. Our athletes will be competing in six different sports, and they will inspire you beyond belief.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.