United by sports: Special Olympics Georgia’s ever-expanding impactby Maggie Carruth and Marc Schultz
Special Olympics Georgia (SOGA) is the largest nonprofit organization in the state providing athletic training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Their first Games, which took place in 1970, drew 500 athletes. This past January, at SOGA’s State Indoor Winter Games, they hosted 1,926 athletes, 759 coaches, and 176 unified partners. Over its last two Games, SOGA brought together more than 3,700 athletes to compete and connect.
Always open to the public and free to attend, the Games are also part of Special Olympics’ dedication to bringing people with intellectual disabilities into society at large, where they can earn acceptance, respect, and confidence. For the same reason, and to foster partnerships with school and community sports programs, SOGA also organizes 20 “unified sports”—including flag football, basketball, table tennis, and even sailing—in which athletes with intellectual disabilities play alongside athletes without intellectual disabilities.
To date, 26,702 athletes have taken part in SOGA’s programs, and participation has been rising year by year.
Filling the storybank
In 45 years, SOGA has grown steadily into one of the state’s most prominent nonprofits, actively serving 120 Georgia counties. To keep their support base growing along with them, SOGA discovered how to connect with Georgians in all demographics—even in an ever-changing, and constantly growing, sector. Their secret? According to SOGA CEO Georgia Milton-Sheats, it’s as simple as storytelling.
“The personal stories of SOGA athletes, and their families, are so strong and relatable,” said Milton-Sheats. “It’s one big way we have set ourselves apart.” In most cases, she added, it’s best to get athletes to tell their own stories: “They’re the ones in it all day, every day.”
That’s why SOGA makes it a regular practice to survey athletes. “They want to tell their stories, and they want to feel the acceptance and respect that comes from achieving a goal on their own,” she said. It’s a universal feeling, and one compelling enough to bring in an impressive list of donors, partners, and sponsors.
Volunteers, take your mark
With a staff of 21, it takes a robust volunteer management program to run multiple programs and events across the state, as well as the Winter and Summer Games.
Certainly, the number of SOGA volunteers speaks for itself: 32,000 over 45 years, with more than 4,000 manning State Games annually. But like any intuitive leader knows, strengths can also be areas for growth. “We do volunteer management well, but we can always improve,” said Milton-Sheats. SOGA prides itself for consistent, continuous evaluation, both internally and externally.
As a result of that research, volunteer opportunities run a wide gamut, providing slots for as many as possible: people who only have a snippet of time each quarter, those who want to make volunteering a routine, and those who want to try many different roles. “We have found it is smart to give the volunteers variety,” said Milton-Sheats. SOGA also invests in volunteers, offering for clinics to enhance the skills of their volunteer coaches.
SOGA stakes its ground
After 45 years of growth, SOGA’s continued expansion is inevitable. That’s why Milton-Sheats and her team, currently working out of a nondescript office park, plan to open a new building by 2017.
“It is time to put a stake in the ground and move into our own space,” said Milton-Sheats. “By the end of the year, we’ll be kicking off a capital campaign to purchase 2.19 acres off of Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Gwinnett County, where we’ll construct a Special Olympics Georgia building with office space, educational resource area, and a high-tech sports lab for training and reviewing skills.”
Milton-Sheats is optimistic about the campaign, and she has reason to be: It’s clear that, as SOGA continues to connect people with intellectual disabilities with opportunities for achieving, learning life skills, and building relationships through sports, the state of Georgia will remain ready not only to cheer on that growth, but to also be a part of it.
To learn more about SOGA, please visit their website: www.specialolympicsga.org. To talk about specific volunteer opportunities, please call Whitney at (770) 414-9390 x 120.