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Back Talk: Jim Schmutz

Mar 05, 2014 01:26PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

By James Houck

With 4.2 million registered athletes worldwide, Special Olympics continues to make headlines for all the right reasons since its Maryland origins in the 1960s. It’s mission “to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic- type sports for persons eight years of age and older with intellectual disabilities” and philosophy “that people with intellectual disabilities can, with proper instruction and encouragement, learn, enjoy, and benefit from participation in individual and team sports” play out across the world, nation, and our state. We recently caught up with Special Olympics Maryland President & CEO Jim Schmutz to discuss the organization on the local level, his first year on the job, and a new campaign, “Spread the Word to End the Word,” launching this month.

You’ve just completed your first year as President & CEO of Special Olympics Maryland; did the year go by quickly and what was the transition into the position like for you and the organization?

The year flew by. I have worked hard with our staff to set a strategic direction with their input and input from key leadership. Ultimately, success in this organization is predicated on the strength of our volunteer leadership because our sports training and competition programs take place in communities across the state. So I set my sight on visiting volunteer management team meetings in our county programs. I also met with athletes and parents in an effort to better understand their perspective on the program and gauge our greatest needs.

What has impressed you most about Special Olympics Maryland?

What impresses me most is the people. I am impressed by our athletes and their approach to living, which inspires me to work harder every day on their behalf. For those who serve our athletes I am impressed by their passion for providing our athletes with the very best experience possible. The Law Enforcement community is an exceptional example of this commitment. Since the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics started in 1986 thousands of law enforcement personnel have volunteered thousands of hours and collectively they have raised almost $30 million to date.

Additionally, Special Olympics Maryland takes pride in having over 3,000 students currently participating in an Interscholastic Unified Sports program where athletes with disabilities are teamed with the peer student athletes without disabilities to form teams that compete in five sports over three seasons.

What are your goals and benchmarks for the organization this year?

The fact is there are 90,000 citizens in Maryland with intellectual disabilities and we currently provide sports training and competition to 6,500 of those individuals. We need to do better and to that end our goal is to double the number of athletes by 2018 so that by that time we are serving 13,000 athletes. It is encouraging to note that everyone agrees that we should be serving more athletes.

This March, the campaign “Spread the Word to End the Word” kicks off. What is the genesis and thrust of this campaign and what is Special Olympics doing to promote it?

The genesis really speaks to that concept of building communities of dignity and respect. There are some who intentionally refer to our athletes as “retards.” There are others who indiscriminately use the term retard or retarded without any intent. Either way, our athletes find it hurtful, frustrating, and disrespectful. The thrust of the campaign is to bring attention to the impact of a word and use it as a launch pad for awareness efforts that help lead to more respectful behavior and an environment of welcome rather than isolation.

How would you define the word success?

Success is defined and measured by our athletes…athletes like Michael Heup who is 34 and joined Special Olympics when he was 21. He has participated in 13 different sports including tennis, cycling, and snowshoeing for the first time last year. He is also our Law Enforcement Torch Run athlete ambassador. Last year he made more than 50 appearances, many of which were to law enforcement audiences, others to corporate and civic groups. He had the honor of delivering the commencement address at Central Special School in Anne Arundel County.

There are thousands more inspirational athlete success stories. Our Special Olympics oath reads, “Let me win, But if I cannot win, Let me be brave in the attempt.”

Success as measured by our athletes can be summed up in how we deliver on the promise of hope while providing an environment that fosters respect leading to lifetime friendships. I would say we are achieving success. But we can do better, we can always do better and we need to do better with more people.
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