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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

striving

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

social

sphere.

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,

Edenzon

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

Sports

Complex at 3 Princess Road looks little different from any other

nearly-finished,

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

special

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

provided.

"Competition is showing the gumption to stand up and participate,

or doing better than you did the last time," says Edenzon.

"Only

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

Jersey.

Married, he has three children, and the third has Down’s Syndrome.

After a state job, working with the developmentally disabled, he

joined

Special Olympics. At the national headquarters of Special Olympics

he worked with overseas programs and launched the program in the

Soviet

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

design.

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

Exercise

Center. Special Olympics coaches will offer the center both as a

permanent

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

exercise

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

counselors

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

sponsors

includes such companies as Goldman Sachs, Continental Airlines, and

ShopRite.

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

recession,

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

contribution.

Sales resistance melts before the good will created by helping these

athletes. Cynicism aside, the Special Olympics is an undeniably smart

business investment.

The one danger lurking behind all the joy and celebration of the

Special

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

either

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

tournament,

joins employer and employee in the same cause. Every year Rich

Gelford,

SO’s volunteer director, recruits more than 15,000 volunteers. Of

those, 3,500 come to help out with the state Olympics alone. For

instance,

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

operating

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.

Special Olympics New Jersey, 3 Princess Road,

Lawrenceville

08648. Marc Edenzon, president. 609-896-8000; fax, 609-896-8040.

Home

page: www.sonj.org

Sports Center Open House, Special Olympics New

Jersey ,

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

evaluations,

giveaways, clinics for bocce, golf, and soccer, and wellness

consultations.

The center is designed to meet the needs of athletes, families,

coaches,

volunteers, and the community — at no cost to the individual —

in an inclusive environment.


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