Special Olympics Offers a Different Kind of Classroom


David Ortiz and Phil Mickelson may be two of the biggest names at Fenway Park and on the PGA tour respectively, but they were not the only players shining on the field and on the links this summer. Since 2001, students of all ages at May Institute have been actively involved in several Special Olympics sports teams. This season has been no exception.

Playing to their personal best
The May Center for Education and Neurorehabilitation has been an active participating organization in the Special Olympics Girls and Boys Softball program for years. Based in Brockton, Mass., it is one of only a handful of schools in the country that provides full-day, year-round educational, behavioral, medical, and rehabilitative services for children and adolescents with brain injury.

Many of these students spend their days learning to walk and talk again, controlling impulsive and challenging behaviors resulting from their brain injuries, and strengthening their confidence and skills to interact with others. Competing in Special Olympics is one of the many extra-curricular activities that bring joy, satisfaction, and a sense of belonging to their lives.

The athletes themselves will tell you that the best part, by far, is “just being part of a team.” “The kids get an opportunity to interact with one another on a level they rarely get to experience,” says Anne Osberger, MS, OTR/L, CBIS, Occupational Therapist and Special Olympics Coordinator at the school. “Being an active participant in the community is very important to all of our students. The kind of growth they experience with the team will last a lifetime and goes way beyond their physical development.”

Beth, mother of 14-year-old Declan, says that this was the first year her son played softball. “Declan would always feel left out as he watched all of us hustle to get out the door for his brothers’ games. Not only is he now able to play and enjoy a sport he used to be excluded from, but he has the added bonus of having his brothers watch his games,” Beth says.

Where every player “medals”
Students from another May Center school – the May Center for Child Development – are familiar faces on the Special Olympics golf circuit. Located in Randolph, Mass., the school serves children and adolescents with autism and other special needs. The team is led by Patrick Keary, Program Coordinator for one of the May Center’s community residences and a certified Special Olympics coach. Team members practice regularly at the Braintree Municipal Golf Course, with special trips to the driving range at Granite Links in Quincy and miniature golf centers.

The dedicated coaching staff also includes Nick Wagner and Romara Pearsull, Assistant Program Coordinators, Martin Muhia, Reginald Cherduville, and Sam Karanja, Residential Assistant Teachers, with tremendous support from fellow colleagues as well as the Parent Advisory Board. The team works with Bob Beach, a PGA golf pro, who has a long history of teaching golfers with disabilities. At any given practice, our players mix with 30-50 other players of all ages with special needs and their parents, adding to the social opportunities that the program offers.

Recently, May Institute’s team competed in the Special Olympics held at Stow Acres Country Club. “Many of our players are not quite ready to compete at a game level,” Patrick explains. “Instead, we compete in areas like longest drive and closet putt, where each member of our team walked away with a medal.”

“I don’t think these parents ever envisioned their kids on a golf team,” he continues. “But here they are on the putting green, mingling with their peers, figuring things out, working on their skills – all wearing these incredible smiles. It doesn’t get much better than that for me.”

Twenty-year-old Matt is one of the team members who lights up when he’s at the driving range. He attends the May Center and lives in one of May Institute’s community residences. Matt has a dual diagnosis of autism and apraxia of speech, a disorder in which a person has trouble saying what he or she wants to say correctly and consistently.

“When Matt was younger I would always take him to the course with me, but I was never able to hold his interest in the way that the group from May Institute has done,” says Matt’s father, Alan. “The work they do at all levels is absolutely remarkable, but particularly as it relates to getting the kids involved in community. Through this experience Matt has grown in ways that allow us to do much more together as a family.”

For Karen, mother of 20-year-old Sam who is also on the golf team, this experience has confirmed that May Institute was the right choice for her son.

“Ever since Sam was a little boy, playing golf with his father and his grandfather was always a very special bonding experience for them. However, as a young man with autism, he was very frustrated that he could not enjoy being an athlete in mainstream society,” Karen explains. “The opportunity to pursue his passion and play – never mind win – in something like the Special Olympics was more than a dream come true for him.”

Since arriving at May Institute in 2008, Sam’s growth and development through this and other community living experiences have had a profound impact on Karen. “I still miss him every day, but when your child is happy and thriving, that is the most important priority. It has been the greatest gift to see my son on the weekends and now know that the only role I have to play is ‘Mom.’ It’s a new and wonderful experience — one made possible because of May Institute.”