Special Athletes Go for Gold

By Caitlin Burns | April 30, 2019


Smiles and laughter abounded on April 7 as special needs athletes from around the region filled the Kuch Center for Sportsfest, an annual one-day athletic clinic that allows athletes to expand their skills in swimming, basketball, martial arts, soccer, dance, and volleyball.

At the event—co-hosted by Arcadia Special Athletes Association (ASAA) and Rotary Special Athletes, a branch of the Glenside Rotary that works in conjunction with Special Olympics Pennsylvania— coaches and attendees cheered on athletes as they scored goals, shot baskets, and practiced their serves.

“I’ve always called the Arcadia Special Athletes Association one of the University’s best-kept secrets,” said Dave Paone ’04, ’09MEd, a certified coach with Special Olympics. “The organization is gold; anything it touches is just wonderful.”

Many Thursday evenings throughout the year, you can hear similar cheers emanating from Bryn Athyn Church School, as coaches work with athletes as part of the Special Olympics volleyball program. In 2001, the Sportsfest tradition was launched as an annual wrap-up event to celebrate the athletes’ progress.

“The reason for the group is to realize that the athletes are just like you,” said the organization’s 2018- 19 President and Computing Technology major Nick McMullen ’19, who tagged along with a classmate to an ASAA meeting during his first year at Arcadia. “I became close with one of the athletes, Dean, and kept going back to see him and make new friends.”

McMullen’s experience is shared by many of the coaches, whether they joined the ASAA staff 30 years ago or have only a few years under their belts. With nearly 80 athletes at volleyball practice every Thursday, the eight to 10 rotating volunteers play a vital role in maintaining a fun, inclusive environment.

But for Sportsfest to run smoothly, more volunteers are needed—and Arcadia students, alumni, and Athletics representatives have answered the call.

The collaboration between Rotary Special Athletes and ASAA started in 1988 when Dr. Raymond Rose, retired professor of Biology and a Glenside Rotarian, saw an opportunity for Beaver College students to make a difference in the community. 

In the days before email, Dr. Rose relied on word of mouth to get students involved. Kerry Costello Leraris ’92, ’94MEd, president of the Arcadia University Alumni Association, remembers Dr. Rose offering volunteer work as extra credit in his introductory Biology course.

“I grew up with one of the athletes,” said Costello Leraris, who couldn’t pass up the extra credit opportunity. “We were both 17 when we started, and we’re still close friends—closer than many of the people I grew up with in New York.” 

Moved by her experience, Costello Leraris— originally a Pre-Med student—changed her major to Psychology with a Special Education certification. Instead of going home to Newburgh, N.Y., after graduation, she became a special education teacher in Glenside and stayed active with Rotary Special Athletes. 

“My class schedule revolved around being available for practices,” recalled Costello Leraris. “I even made a deal with a math professor that, as long as I passed the midterm and final with an A and tutored another student, I could skip Thursday night classes.” 

Similar to Costello Leraris, Paone—who was introduced to the program by Dr. Rose when he needed to complete community service hours after being caught at a party—made ASAA practices a priority. 

“Dr. Rose’s passion was for Special Olympics and its connection to Beaver College,” said Paone, who continues to lead practices 19 years later. “One of the biggest highlights for me is how much Sportsfest has grown. When it first started, there were only 12 to 15 athletes playing volleyball; now, we have 50 to 80 athletes participating in a variety of sports.” 

Arcadia volunteers played an instrumental role in this growth. Currently, nine of the weekly volunteers for Rotary Special Athletes are Arcadia alumni who began volunteering as part of the student association. 

The collaboration is also strengthened by Arcadia’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. During a men’s lacrosse game last spring, Rotary athletes hosted a kickball game at halftime. Additionally, ASAA and Rotary Special Athletes collaborate on year-round social events, including a holiday party and Valentine’s Day dance. 

“The athletes are so full of joy and appreciate everything,” said Dr. Rose, who retired from Arcadia in 2007 after teaching for 37 years. “They celebrate every success.”

After having open-heart surgery as a sophomore, McMullen dedicated himself to ASAA. Now in his last semester at Arcadia, the New Durham, N.H., native plans to become a certified coach and transition to Rotary Special Athletes after graduation. 

“I find such fulfillment from it,” said McMullen, who recently earned his nursing assistant license. “We want the athletes to realize that they are included in our community, have a home here, and are always welcome at Arcadia.”

Special Olympics Montgomery County gold medalist swimmer Brian Quinn—who’s participated in the program for more than 26 years—is one of the many athletes finding fulfillment, too. 

“I love Sportsfest,” said Quinn, who has Down syndrome. “All of my friends are here.” 

The camaraderie between the athletes and coaches is palpable, often bringing Arcadia alumni back for Sportsfest. 

“I had to come back to see the athletes—I loved working with them,” said Maria Magor ’18, president of ASAA from 2016 to 2018. Magor, who now works with children on the autism spectrum, couldn’t miss what she calls the “biggest event of the year” for Rotary athletes. 

For longtime volunteers like Costello Leraris and Paone, the athletes are part of their families. Everyone pitches in to provide care. Many share in the joy of major events, like weddings. Costello Leraris even opened her home when the mother of one of the athletes broke her hip. 

“For me, it’s not a ‘coaching’ thing,” said Costello Leraris. “You feel the love. You could be gone for a week or a month, and the athletes always remember.” 

As for the future of ASAA? Psychology major and volleyball student-athlete Mackenzie Hale ’20, who was drawn to the organization at last year’s activities fair, will now serve as co-president. 

“I was involved with an organization like this at home, and I wanted to make sure I had something like it here,” said the St. Louis, Mo., native. “Seeing the smiles on their faces when they do something they didn’t know they could do is amazing.”