Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the September 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New Fields for Special Olympics
He could bench 375 pounds. We were 13 — just
to bulk up ourselves — and we clustered around him in awe. We
admired, envied him as he groaned the bar back onto the rack. The
fact that Jackie had that somewhat funny smile and was oddly slow
with his words meant nothing to us. In that gym, he was our superior
and we all jostled to talk with him, touch his huge arms. Sport had
leveled the playing field and placed Jackie at the center of our
Such is the goal of Marc Edenzon for all his 13,500 special athletes
in New Jersey. As president of the New Jersey Special Olympics,
and his 23-person staff labor to arrange a ceaseless round of more
than 140 events, leagues, and fitness activities throughout the year.
They have just moved from office space at Princeton Forrestal Village
to a 34,000 square-foot sports complex on Princess Road in Lawrence
and will host a grand opening celebration this Saturday, September
21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 609-896-8000 for information.
The young athletes gain strength, skills and much needed confidence
by participating, but the Special Olympics team reaches beyond. It
seeks to weave special athletes into the sports fabric of our society,
as much as each individual is able. "Sport holds the best arena
for mutual participation," says Edenzon, "and the best hope
for mutual acceptance."
For this reason, the massive 11-acre New Jersey Special Olympics
Complex at 3 Princess Road looks little different from any other
very lavish sports training center. The tennis and bocce courts are
all regulation size. The basketball hoops all stand at a regulation
10 feet. And the soccer goals will be set just as far apart for
as for regular olympians. When a runner reaches first base after the
throw, he is out; and a broad jumper cannot put one toe over the line
without fouling out. While Special Olympics refuses to water down
a sport, the goal of participation always remains primary. Thus, the
shot puts are indeed the regulation 12 and 16 pounds. But for those
athletes unable to heft such a weight, a softball throw is also
"Competition is showing the gumption to stand up and participate,
or doing better than you did the last time," says Edenzon.
the winner receives the victor’s medal, but every athlete receives
a participant’s ribbon." And hopefully, the new facility will
provide another 7,000 New Jersey special athletes a chance to get
into the game.
The son of an entrepreneur who went to Rutgers, Class of 1977, Edenzon
has a master’s degree in human relations from the College of New
Married, he has three children, and the third has Down’s Syndrome.
After a state job, working with the developmentally disabled, he
Special Olympics. At the national headquarters of Special Olympics
he worked with overseas programs and launched the program in the
Union. Since 1995, when he took over as president of the New Jersey
chapter, participation has increased by 4,000 athletes and the budget
has grown from $2.9 million to $4.2 million.
For five years Edenzon and the New Jersey Special Olympics officials
had been working with Hillier architects to design a new center. The
previous method of farming out programs to area schools and YMCAs
had proved a logistical and insurance nightmare. Yet when the old
Prince tennis racquet manufacturing plant came up for sale, with its
11 open acres and nearly 20,000 square feet of high-ceiling enclosed
space, it seemed more desirable than anything they had hoped to
At a sale price of $4.2 million it even offered the bonus of upscale
furnishings and a fully wired computer and phone system left behind
by the previous owner, PrinVest, the asset-based lending firm that
closed last year. (Although exactly how desperately the staff needs
the marble-tiled wet bar may be open to question.)
By 2004, if all goes according to plan, nearly $6 million will have
been spent to renovate and expand the center, which will have 34,000
square feet and several outside playing fields. It will include the
massive Bovis gym and multi-purpose recreation area and the WaWa
Center. Special Olympics coaches will offer the center both as a
workout place and also as a place to get training, so that athletes
like Jackie can learn how to use the equipment in their neighborhood
community and school gyms. "They will learn how to work an
bike and treadmill and then be provided with a cheat sheet to use
the facilities in the community," says Edenzon. "Many sports
clubs offer memberships free of charge to our athletes."
Also well underway is the Frank Walsh Sports Education
and Family Center. Not only will its library, computers, and
provide families with answers to the host of special needs questions,
but it will provide some clever and thoughtful touches. Off to the
side is a sibling center where brothers and sisters can find their
own space to either find information about the special sibling, or
just do homework away from it all. "It will be a place where a
doctor can refer a family if the amnio comes back positive for Down’s
Syndrome," says Edenzon. "It may not provide counseling so
much as general information on individuals with Down’s Syndrome —
a place to observe programs and borrow videos, a place to educate
both the family and the general community."
This is the first-ever complex devoted entirely to Special Olympics.
And while the final touches will not be completed until 2004, donors
are already lining up to fill the coffers of this $10 million project.
The law enforcement officers of New Jersey have donated $1.6 million
towards a "Torch Run Leadership Center" to handle everything
from medical to administrative needs. The long list of corporate
includes such companies as Goldman Sachs, Continental Airlines, and
If a society can measure its greatness not by whom it conquers, but
by how well it takes care of its members, Special Olympics is making
us all look pretty good. Since it began in l968 under the auspices
of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, it has expanded worldwide
to draw millions of athletes from 160 nations. And virtually never
does there seem to be any want of funds. Despite our current
and the charitable drain of September 11th, Special Olympics stands
out as the Rothschild of non-profits. They don’t make budgets, they
make wish lists. On the lips of every competing hard-pressed charity
hangs the question — what’s so special about these olympians?
Most donors will hasten to assure you that their prime reason for
giving to the Special Olympics is the charity itself. It has all the
right elements: children, athletics, people visibly striving to their
utmost, and the aiding of those who are definitely in need and not
a threat. It is creating model programs for replication throughout
the state, and some of these programs are being adopted nationwide.
Of course it stands heart strings above any environmental cause, not
only because it favors our own species, but because it avoids the
whole threat of those who believe that saving a raccoon is the first
step towards the destruction of capitalism as we know it. It offers
more immediate results than the March of Dimes. And let’s face it,
where can a dollar be better spent than in helping a child in a leg
brace rise from his chair and break the tape.
Corporations fight over each other for rights to back a certain event.
Edenzon gives several reasons for this, the first being that Special
Olympics is specific and visual. Simply, the corporations can see
what they are getting. Equally important, they can point to their
contributions both as a source of advertising and as a community
Sales resistance melts before the good will created by helping these
athletes. Cynicism aside, the Special Olympics is an undeniably smart
The one danger lurking behind all the joy and celebration of the
Olympics, however is the interpretation that these are only games
— only a brief bandaid to the very serious problems of disabling
disease. For that and other reasons, the Special Olympics has evolved
into a year-round cause. Over 25 sports are available to the athletes,
both team and individual. Wellness, fitness, and family advice has
been added. Officials reach out to schools and YMCAs to initiate
inclusive or separate events for special athletes. And as the events
grow, so do the patrons.
The greatest charitable advantage, feels Edenzon, lies in employee
morale. An Olympic event, be it a league game or a national
joins employer and employee in the same cause. Every year Rich
SO’s volunteer director, recruits more than 15,000 volunteers. Of
those, 3,500 come to help out with the state Olympics alone. For
400 employees from ShopRite donate their time while their employer
provides food and sizable funds. "You get them all pulling on
the same rope," says Edenzon, "and they all feel a lot better
about each other come Monday morning."
In addition, Special Olympics casts its net far beyond the corporate
waters. Naming opportunities abound — from a basketball or book
to an entire wing. Non-athletic volunteers are offered positions in
the family center. Everyone finds a place and all are made to feel
welcome. "They always make you feel like you are invaluable,"
says a volunteer who has held a stopwatch at scores of events.
Finally, everyone wants to go with a winner. With an
almost cavalier assuredness, Edenzon notes that the $10 million for
the new center, just like the oversubscribed $5.5 million annual
budget, are fairly well pledged. The money is there. The system is
in place and the athletes are ready. He says this with calm confidence
as workmen race to prepare the center for its gala grand opening.
Never once does he mention poor pitiful kids in need. Only when a
reporter insists does he reveal his own life history. Rather he talks
only of his athletes struggling and triumphant and all the grand new
facilities coming their way. He is not an evangelist, not a salesman,
he is like some slightly wild and energetic entrepreneur whose sheer
drive makes funders afraid to miss out on his plan. Particularly when
he has a staff of 23 equally fervored.
At the Special Olympics New Jersey Sports Complex the playing field
has been leveled. It is a space where folks like Jackie, and his fans,
can enjoy some competition — and celebration.
08648. Marc Edenzon, president. 609-896-8000; fax, 609-896-8040.
3 Princess Road, Lawrenceville. The new sports complex includes an
exercise and wellness center, a sports education and family center
with multi-media libraries, a gymnasium, indoor and outdoor courts
for tennis, basketball, and bocce, and more. Saturday, September
21, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The day features athlete and volunteer registration, fitness
giveaways, clinics for bocce, golf, and soccer, and wellness
The center is designed to meet the needs of athletes, families,
volunteers, and the community — at no cost to the individual —
in an inclusive environment.
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