The Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival, hosted and organized by Villanova University students, is being held on campus this weekend. It is the largest annual student-run Special Olympics event in the world, and today I had the opportunity as a volunteer to observe up-close and personal just how amazing an event this is.
Held during the first weekend in November, the campus hosts over 1,000 athletes, 400 coaches, 4,000 volunteers, and the many corporate sponsors and media outlets that will provide coverage for the event. A committee of 90 students meets year round to organize every aspect of the Festival, from staging ceremonies, to managing the budget, to coordinating the thousands of volunteers. The athletes who participate in the Fall Festival will compete in six Olympic-type sports: bocce, long distance running, power-lifting, roller skating, soccer, and volleyball. All housing and meals for the weekend are provided by Special Olympics Pennsylvania and Villanova University.
I was able to watch four of the events – bocce, power lifting, roller skating, and volleyball, and to say it was inspirational would be an understatement.
The athletes have worked hard to get here, and it was a joy to watch them compete with such positive attitudes and big smiles. They were living out the Athlete Oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” The competitors seemed to enjoy the opportunity to interact with the many Villanova students who were volunteering at each event.
But it wasn’t just the athletes who benefited from such interactions. I know what an effect the event had on me, and I wasn’t directly involved in working with the athletes. So I can imagine what a lasting impression today must have left on all of those student volunteers. It was particularly rewarding to me to see many of my students acting as volunteers and committee members.
What made the biggest impression on me however was when I started to run into alumni who came back to campus specifically to be part of the Fall Festival Weekend. The event had become such an important part of their life, that they came from New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia (and that’s just the ones I personally knew) to offer their support and encouragement to the athletes. I noticed on more than one occasion that these alumni had established relationships with some of the athletes over the years, and they were taking advantage of the opportunity to reconnect with those athletes.
The event also has a Healthy Athletes venue staffed by local health practitioners that provides a multitude of health screenings for the athletes. The screenings include hearing, vision, dental, podiatry, and general health. Perhaps one of the more amazing benefits provided to the athletes is that if it is determined that they need a new pair of prescription glasses, they are made for them right there and available to the athletes in an hour. For those who don’t need prescription glasses, the vendor provides sunglasses or sports goggles, and all of this at no cost to the athlete.
While the Special Olympics may be the biggest annual volunteer activity for Villanova students, it is certainly not the only one.
Villanova has also been recognized as one of the top collegiate Habitat for Humanity chapters, and regularly has more students participating in Habitat trips than just about any college in the country.
Villanova also has one of the biggest single days of service in the Philadelphia area, St. Thomas of Villanova Day, in honor of its patron saint. Each year, the Day of Service brings together nearly 5,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and their families working in partnership with neighborhood agencies to perform service throughout Greater Philadelphia.
This coming week will mark the beginning of Hunger and Homelessness and Awareness Week (HHAW) at Villanova. Started at Villanova University in 1975, under the direction of Fr. Ray Jackson, OSA, his program sparked a movement of colleges who instituted similar weeks based on the HHAW model. In association with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness, over 750 educational communities across the nation now participate in Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week each November.
When you add it all up, Villanova students provide more than 250,000 volunteer hours per year. Perhaps it is no surprise that Villanova has received national recognition for its community service efforts.
And so today I caught a glimpse of this Villanova commitment to service, and after 30 years of teaching at Villanova, it was rejuvenating. I am fortunate to be surrounded by such caring young men and women, and it helped remind me why I love Villanova so much.
It also makes me optimistic about the future, knowing that people like this will be our future leaders, teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, artists, and parents.
In stock market terms, I am bullish on the future, and if I could, I’d invest in Villanova students.
So a big thank you and congratulations to today’s athletes and volunteers. You made today special.