Special Olympics New York President and CEO Stacey Hengsterman stands with Jude Killar, a graduate of the Special Olympics New York Athlete Leadership Program. Killar is a champion athlete, but an even better public speaker. Provided photo
Able-bodied residents with disabilities face a strong opponent while seeking employment here in New York. In professional sports, strong opponents face off against savvy competitors who game plan and retool. That’s just what’s happening as two All-Star agencies join forces.
New York State Industries for the Disabled, Inc. and Special Olympics New York recently announced a three-year $90,000 sponsorship to support an expansion of the Special Olympics NY Athlete Leadership Program, which empowers select athletes as messengers for the organization by providing public speaking training as well as opportunities to mentor their fellow athletes.
Drawing on NYSID’s expertise throughout the state, Special Olympics NY athletes will now also receive workforce training and internship opportunities through NYSID’s Preferred Source Program.
The Preferred Source Program was established under state finance law to address employment reform affecting people with disabilities. The program establishes social and economic goals. Under this law, when certain commodity or service offerings meet the purchasing needs of a state or local government agency, public benefit corporation and some public authorities, those purchases must be made through the Preferred Source Program. NYSID is a facilitating agency of the program.
People with defined disabilities are underemployed, especially in New York state. According to Maureen O’Brien, NYSID president and CEO, the unemployment rate stands at 67 percent in New York. The Empire State ranks near last at 46th in employment for the disabled within the United States.
“NYSID and Special Olympics New York are removing boundaries for people with disabilities and putting them in a position to lead a higher quality life,” said O’Brien, “not only for themselves but for those around them. This sponsorship is the beginning of a powerful long-term partnership between our organizations, one we are proud to have in place ahead of the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics New York.”
Special Olympics New York is the largest state chapter in the country, serving more than 67,000 athletes across New York with year-round sports training, athletic competition, and health screenings. The organization also partners with more than 170 schools statewide to offer Unified Sports. All Special Olympics New York programs are offered at no cost to athletes, their families or caregivers.
“Special Olympics New York athletes are leading an inclusion revolution, showing the world all that’s possible when individuals, schools and communities choose to include people of all abilities,” said Special Olympics New York President & CEO Stacey Hengsterman. “Our Athlete Leadership Program fosters their dedication and commitment to the movement and positions athletes to put their talents to work as volunteers, coaches, fundraisers, and spokespeople. We are so grateful to Maureen O’Brien and NYSID for helping us grow this program and take it to the next level by creating new employment opportunities for our graduates.”
Graduates of the six-week program often accompany Special Olympics New York executive leadership at speaking engagements, fundraise on behalf of the organization, are featured in media interviews, and encourage and support athletes in their region as they train, compete, and go for the gold.
Participation in Special Olympics New York sports helps people with intellectual disabilities achieve joy, acceptance, and success. The confidence they gain through athletic achievement impacts them beyond the playing field and helps them succeed in all areas of life. The Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Program, carried out in partnership with local media outlets, colleges and universities, and public and private businesses, teaches athletes to effectively develop their personal story and present it to an audience.
Jude Killar graduated from the program immediately before landing a job. In sports, the Delmar native excels on both the basketball court and softball field. He’s earned the trophies to back this claim, but he buries it in conversation. There’s something else that gives the 23-year-old more pride.
Killar was born with Down Syndrome. It happens in about one in every 700 births. It means he’s born with an extra chromosome. Those with it possess distinct characteristics. According to the Center for Disease Control, those traits include almond-shaped eyes, speech impediment, an IQ that measures on the lower scale, among other things. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop anyone from playing basketball, holding a job or speaking in front of hundreds of people.
Killar was introduced to public speaking while attending courses at Hudson Valley Community College. Speaking before an audience is a performance not unlike sports. There’s the preparation and practice; developing the conscious control of body language, and making eye contact with the people in front of you. Then, there’s showing those in front of you how ice runs through your veins while exhibiting flawless oratory skills.
Hengsterman recalls accompanying Killar to a speaking engagement in front of Google in New York City. While there, he shared his story as the evening’s keynote speaker. Killar spoke before a crowd of nearly 700 people.
By the end of his speech, Hengsterman said Google was enamored. They asked how they could help, offered to help with technology, and later assigned a team to assist Special Olympics with its data problems. Today, a member of Google sits on the Special Olympics board of directors.
“It was an impressive couple of days,” said Hengsterman, who had only just started her leadership duties at Special Olympics. She admitted it was a weekend in which she looked forward to having an audience with the $52 billion internet giant. She credited Killar with doing that. Afterward, Hengsterman hired him.
“Because of the Athlete Leadership program, I have learned how to tell my story to companies like Google that want to support Special Olympics New York and athletes like me,” said Killar. “It has also helped me become a valued employee. I am happy to be able to help support my fellow athletes by sharing what I have experienced by being a part of Special Olympics New York and the inclusion revolution.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.