Luther students developing plan for Special Olympics event in Decorah

A Special Olympics event could be on the horizon in Decorah.

This summer, Luther College social work major Rachel Clennon, and accounting major Sebastine Swamynathan partnered with CHOICE Employment Services in an effort to assess the need and develop a plan for a Special Olympics event in Decorah.

“The importance of hosting a Special Olympics event is to educate the greater Decorah community and the Luther community about intellectual disabilities and make sure that they are seen, they are heard, understood, involved and included in the community because they are here and they need to be recognized and celebrated,” said Clennon

“Having an athletic event that brings people with disabilities and people without them together, learning different sports and playing them together will bring the community a lot closer,” said Swamynathan.

Based in Decorah, CHOICE Employment Services is a local organization devoted to improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities by helping them access, obtain and maintain employment. While their mission is vocation-oriented, CHOICE staff recognize that it takes more than a job for a person to feel fulfilled.

“Having a sense of community is so important. A lot of our individuals don’t have a lot of community involvement or community activities to go to. There is a Special Olympics program for high schoolers, but they don’t have this opportunity once they become an adult,” said Leah Dahlquist ‘15, regional director of CHOICE. Dahlquist’s desire to organize a local Special Olympics event for adults inspired this year’s Social Impact Research Fellowship (SIRF) project.

Established in 2018 by faculty advisors Britt Rhodes, Brittany Cord and Alexandra White, the SIRF program pairs one social work student and one management/accounting student to partner with a community-based  organization to help address a problem or fill a need. The SIRF program provides an opportunity for Luther students to get out into the community to actively learn and use their skills to provide resources and support to help further their partner organization’s mission or project.As part of this year’s SIRF project, students developed a survey to assess the community’s interest in a Special Olympics event in Decorah.

“The initial results [of the survey] showed that a lot of people would be interested in attending and participating in such an event. 86% of respondents said they are interested in participating, 93% are interested in attending that event; and our top sports were bowling, basketball and track and field,” said Clennon. 

According to Clennon and Swamynathan, one of the next steps is for Luther College to gain accreditation by Special Olympics Iowa as a Special Olympics College.

“This could then open the door to a Special Olympics Division III NCAA College Partnership,” said Clennon.

Moving forward into the 2021-22 academic year, these students plan to continue to work towards creating a Special Olympics event in Decorah, either in a volunteer or work-study capacity.

“We are hoping to create a Special Olympics College Club at Luther in the fall and work on hosting official events within the school year, starting with the return of the Norse Unity Bowl, a discontinued Special Olympics event at Luther,” said Swamynathan.

Social Impact Research Fellowship

The interdisciplinary approach of the research is an essential aspect of the SIRF Program. Clennon says having a social work major and accounting major come together on a project leads to high-impact results.

“It’s really important not only to have two people working on the research, but two people from different disciplines. This allowed us to cover all the bases in the project, and get different perspectives to expand our scope of knowledge. Not only is this project benefiting our personal career development, it’s benefiting a real organization and, in this case, real people,” said Clennon. The SIRF Program also allows students to serve the common good.

“For me this is really important because it takes me in a full circle from learning and then giving back to Luther and the community, and that for me is the biggest part,” said Swamynathan.

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