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The Joy of Sports and Service

The Joy of Sports and Service

A new championship banner is coming to the Fish Center. Unlike the others, this one will not be Tabor Red. Last year, Tabor earned national recognition from Special Olympics as a Unified Champion School and will soon receive a banner to honor this achievement. In announcing the news, Special Olympics praised Tabor for meeting standards of excellence in the areas of inclusion, advocacy, and respect. The partnership that has blossomed between the school and Special Olympics in recent years is a testament to what happens when impassioned student leaders mobilize an entire community to support an important cause.

Going into her senior year, Molly Bent ’16 had a full plate. She was committed to play basketball at the University of Connecticut the following year and her rigorous schedule included four AP classes. But when the opportunity emerged to initiate a relationship between Tabor and Special Olympics, she jumped. Molly’s sister, Sarah, was born with Down Syndrome and had competed in Special Olympics for many years. Working with Tim Cleary, Tabor’s Dean of Students, and a number of her classmates, Molly started a Special Olympics club.

Ahead of their first event, she authored a Tabortalk blog post to rally her peers. “The people involved are the most important aspects of any Special Olympics program. Volunteers need to be energetic, selfless and kind, and the students at Tabor are all those things.” In the months that followed, the community proved Molly right. The Young Athletes Program, the club’s flagship offering, was a tremendous success, so they planned more events to increase their reach. On Valentine’s Day 2016, they organized a Special Olympics basketball tournament and hosted 11 local teams. The tournament was staffed entirely by Tabor students who were overwhelmed by the outpouring of gratitude they received from the athletes’ families.

Unlike many worthy clubs that thrive only to fizzle when key student leaders graduate, Tabor’s Special Olympics club has flourished. Its organizational structure is vital to its enduring success. The club has a board of directors, and each year six to eight students sit on the board. They meet regularly with Mr. Cleary, their faculty advisor, and serve as a conduit between the club and the broader school community. Over the past five years, Special Olympics has become a staple of Tabor’s robust service program due to the tireless work of these leaders and the energetic response from the student body.

Running the Young Athletes Program is one of the club’s core functions. Every Sunday during the winter term, they welcome around 20 local children with intellectual disabilities to campus. The kids are all under 12, with some as young as 3, and they work in small groups with Tabor students.

“We usually run one sport a weekend,” says Kiley Smith ’21, a member of the 2020-2021 student leadership team. “One weekend it could be tennis or soccer, and then the next weekend could be baseball or track. For the really young kids, it’s more of a free-for-all. We’ll have an obstacle course set up with hoops and balls, and you basically just help them have fun and go wherever they lead you.”

At the other end of the Field House, the older group works on developing sport-specific skills. “It’s a more structured program,” says Lainie Cederholm ’21, another board member. “They’ll learn how to throw a ball or how to run sprints, so once they leave Young Athletes, they’re even more prepared to enter a Special Olympic sport.”

In addition to coordinating the Young Athletes Program, Tabor hosted two major Special Olympics events annually, prior to the pandemic, and hopes to start again soon. One is the basketball tournament that Molly started, which has grown to include 15 to 18 local teams every winter. The other is the School Day Games. Held in partnership with Special Olympics Massachusetts, it has quickly become one of the highlights of the school year.

Nearly 250 Special Olympics athletes from 16 different schools spend a day on campus competing in a number of events. Classes are called off and the entire Tabor community participates in a day of service. Just like the Olympics, the event is bookended with opening and closing ceremonies. The Special Olympics club takes the lead in planning, but it’s a team effort that brings the best out of every Seawolf. For the visiting athletes, it’s a day of joy and accomplishment.

“After the closing ceremony, each of the athletes gets a medal and the entire Tabor community lines up in the Fish Center concourse,” Lainie says. “You have this tunnel of Tabor kids, and each athlete gets their medal and then runs down the tunnel high-fiving everyone and getting cheered.” The most recent School Day Games featured a particularly poignant moment for Lainie. “My elementary school came and one of my friends from home was an athlete. He ran down the concourse and it was just so fun because I hadn’t seen him in such a long time and he had the biggest smile in the world.”

Although COVID-19 made it impossible to host in-person events, the club continued to champion the Special Olympics cause. “We’ve persevered through a tough, confusing time and have been able to work out logistics, communicate with one another, and include the whole school in our mission,” says Claudia Rogers ’22, one of the rising seniors on the board. Last year, they brainstormed a number of creative ways to maintain the community’s support and engagement.

In October, they sponsored a screening of The Peanut Butter Falcon, a movie where the main character is played by an actor with Down Syndrome. The screening kicked off an R-word campaign, an effort to eradicate the word “retarded” from the community’s vocabulary. In December, the club organized a Polar Plunge that raised over $5,000 to support Special Olympics Massachusetts.

The horizon holds hope that in-person events will return sooner rather than later. Those shared experiences are what make Special Olympics so impactful for everyone involved.

“I don’t know if a lot of the athletes have a sense of community beyond their families,” says Kiley. “So when they come together and see kids who are like them, I think it’s really moving for them. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not that different. We can all do this and we’re all part of this community.’ And even for the Tabor students helping, we’re all equal and I think it’s important for everyone to see that the Special Olympics athletes can do just as much as we can.”

The ongoing relationship between Tabor and Special Olympics has helped instill a powerful message, one that Claudia captures eloquently. “This work has solidified my view that you can have challenges and be ‘different.’ You can still be successful and make everyone’s life brighter and better just because you are you. And you can be uniquely you without judgment.”