Patriots player Obi Melifonwu stopped by DCD for the final Special Olympics flag football practice of the fall last Monday, a thrill for the five seventh-grade boys who have been playing with the team all fall as volunteers! Neil Burmeister, Willy Connors, LJ Gage, Owen Hotra, and Gabe Salfity made it to all the practices, which took place on Mondays this fall from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. on the front field at DCD.
Last summer, Dan Balk reached out to the Special Olympics organization to see if there might be opportunities for students here at DCD to volunteer in some capacity. He discovered that the Charles River Center in Needham, a non-profit human services agency serving people with developmental disabilities, partners with the Special Olympics in running various sports programs. Last year they had hoped to run a flag football program but couldn’t find an appropriate venue.
Dan, who is DCD’s service-learning co-coordinator with Colleen Hultgren, explained, “I thought we could give or rent our facilities for a nominal fee, and since we’re always looking for service opportunities for our kids, and our kids have expressed interest in doing sports-related activities, it all came together.”
At first, Dan said he reached out to the DCD eighth-graders to join the practices, but the busy fall term, including SSAT prep on Monday afternoons, made it difficult for them to participate. So, he asked the group of younger students to try it out one Monday, and they decided to stay on, making it to all the team practices!
The Special Olympics model for these programs is to pair intellectually disabled people with “unified partners” who don’t have a disability to make it more of a game. The five DCD student-volunteers played that role during the practices, a role normally reserved for 15-year-olds.
“It was meaningful for everyone to get to know and learn about people they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise,” Dan said. Playing an authentic role where they were needed and learning something through the process is in line with DCD’s new service-learning model.
As a surprise at the last practice, the students got to meet and play with Melifonwu, who is from the local area and is friends with Sarah Ouellette of the Charles River Center.
At the conclusion of the season, Sarah wrote, “On the behalf of the team and Charles River Center, I wanted to thank you for hosting our practices and for arranging five students to join and play with the team. Let your students know they were truly amazing and made a huge impact during our practices.”
It was a cool little reward that they got to meet and play with this Patriots player and that he brought them cool stuff,” said Dan, “just for being a good person.”