A man who can bench press 500 pounds is an athlete.

A young woman who wins an international swimming competition is an athlete.

A man who can speak eloquently to a room filled with business leaders has a high degree of self confidence.

Add the fact that all three have intellectual disabilities and their achievements become even more impressive.

They are among the thousands of Hawaii residents who have risen beyond their disabilities thanks to Special Olympics Hawaii, which has been serving the state since 1972.

Perhaps it’s the name, but Special Olympics Hawaii continues to wrestle with misconceptions about what it really is.

“Many people don’t understand the value in what we’re doing,” says Nancy Bottelo, the nonprofit’s president and CEO since 1987.

“We’re more than many people think we are,” adds Dan Epstein, its chief operating officer, who joined the organization full time 26 years ago.

Yes, Special Olympics stages athletic events. Yes, all of its participants are called athletes. But much more goes unnoticed by the general public.

For example, the parent organization, which operates throughout the U.S. and in 172 countries, is the world’s largest provider of health care for people with intellectual disabilities. It also is a leader in mainstreaming its athletes into the larger community.

A note about terminology. Special Olympics refers to its athletes as people with intellectual disabilities. It does NOT refer to them as intellectually disabled. The distinction is important if we are to focus on the athlete as a person and not on the disability.

It’s also important to note that a person with an intellectual disability does not necessarily have a physical disability. Take as examples the Kona man who bench pressed 500 pounds, and the Maui woman, who is visually impaired, who won a world swimming championship in Ireland.

At the same time, the parent organization has found that approximately 70% of its athletes have health issues such as obesity, limited vision or hearing, diseased teeth, bad nutrition and the stress that comes with having a disability. In response, Special Olympics has created “Healthy Communities,” which uses partnerships with the medical community to weave health services into its programming.

Bottelo and Epstein believe that Healthy Communities is one of Special Olympics’ most important contributions to its athletes and to the greater community.

Epstein says people with intellectual disabilities are 3 to 5 times more likely to be bullied than those without disabilities. In response, Special Olympics has created the Unified Schools program in which students both with and without intellectual disabilities interact in sports, youth leadership and advocacy, and whole-school engagement.

“It breaks down barriers between those with intellectual disabilities and those without,” Bottelo says of the program. “They go to barbecues together, to movies together.”

True to its name, Special Olympics Hawaii holds sporting events over three seasons in 10 different areas: power lifting, softball, swimming, track and field, bocce, soccer, basketball, bowling, golf and flag football. More than 3,800 athletes with intellectual disabilities compete and approximately 1,000 athletes from the Unified Schools program participate alongside them.

The Special Olympics athletes in Hawaii are evenly split between youth and adults and range in age from 2 years to their late 80s. Approximately 55% are male and 45% female.

Special Olympics Hawaii, which serves the state’s 6 major islands and charges no fees, relies heavily on more than 11,000 volunteers, including 715 certified coaches. The State Games alone require 2,500 volunteers.

Bottelo recalls that the Special Olympics Hawaii staff consisted of her and one part-timer when she became its chief executive. Today, it has 12 full-time and 8 part-time employees, a 23-member board and a Young Executives Board whose members help with volunteering and fund-raising.

The Hawaii affiliate operates on a $2.5 million annual budget and, like many nonprofits, struggles to raise money. Because it’s part of a global organization, its fund-raising is restricted to within the state. It is attempting to build a headquarters and training facility in Kapolei and plans to complete its first building later this year.

This year also will see a transition for Special Olympics Hawaii when Bottelo retires and Epstein replaces her as president and CEO. Bottelo says it will be the culmination of a carefully designed transition plan that had Epstein expand his role from sports to chief operating officer a few years ago.

Originally from Connecticut and a graduate of the University of Virginia, Epstein says he has always had a passion for sports and worked with the Hula Bowl and later the Hawaii State Games before joining Special Olympics Hawaii in 1993.

“I love doing sports,” he says. “Here, we do it for a higher purpose.”

Originally from Seattle, Bottelo moved to Hawaii in 1970 where she sold ads for Honolulu Publishing Company and ran an aerobics dancing program. After she helped raise $100,000 for Special Olympics Hawaii she was invited to join its board and became its president and CEO in 1987.

I asked Bottelo what she will take away from her years with Special Olympics Hawaii. It will be the families, she said.

“We are not just touching athletes, we are making a huge impact on the lives of our families – thousands of moms, dads, brothers and sisters,” she said. “So many parents are told by doctors and teachers what their child cannot do. Special Olympics Hawaii celebrates what their child CAN do. Through Special Olympics, parents and siblings have the opportunity to meet and form a camaraderie with other families who understand the daily challenges they face.

“We bring hope to families.”

For more information, contact Nancy Bottelo at ceo@sohawaii.org or Dan Epstein at sports@sohawaii.org.

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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