Guided by kinesiology professor Linda Gazzillo Diaz, 14 students in William Paterson University’s athletic training program spent a June weekend in Ewing, New Jersey to volunteer at the Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) 2018 Summer Games.
Gazzillo Diaz, who has been volunteering with SONJ as part of its medical team since 1996, started bringing students with her to the Games shortly thereafter. The students provide care to athletes and coaches, under Gazzillo Diaz’s supervision, and help with other tasks as requested by the SONJ staff.
“It’s a good experience for them,” Gazzillo Diaz says. “They get to work with a different population of athletes than those they usually work with at the University or during their athletic training clinical experience in local high schools.”
Some students got to learn even more than anticipated at these Games, she explains, because a podiatrist who was providing specialized services to the athletes requested help from WP. Stationed at the doctor’s Fit Feet program, students interacted with athletes one-on-one to measure their feet, fit them for appropriate shoes, check for abnormalities or diseases, and test their biomechanics.
“This kind of hands-on experience with so many athletes in such a quick span of time is something that I think will help me become a better athletic trainer,” says Erica Schulman ’20, a double major in athletic training and exercise science.
“A good portion of people with these disabilities aren’t very communicative, or they don’t communicate the way we do, so I need to better learn how to pick up on their cues and how to work with their family and friends,” says athletic training major Kwaku Owusu-Achampong ’20, of his biggest takeaway.
Schulman says the most memorable part of the SONJ trip for her was being stationed at a tall ramp of a BMX course, where she had to help athletes up and down the ramp.
“Many athletes were scared to go down, but we would slowly guide them. About half the time, they would come back around for a second lap,” Schulman says. “They gained so much confidence after being shown they could do something, and they wanted to do it again and again. SONJ gives these athletes the means to do much more than the world tells them they can.”
“It’s literally the definition of a multi-coalition force,” Owusu-Achampong says of SONJ. “There are athletes of all different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. I realized this was a community that is very strong. The competition wasn’t the most important part for them. Everyone was generally happy to be there, to be together, and it truly touched me.”
Many of her volunteers, Gazzillo Diaz says, have such a positive experience at the Games that they often contribute to subsequent SONJ events with their professor.
“There were two days of competition – one in the hot sun and the other in pouring rain. Both days were the most fun I’ve had covering a sporting event. I already know I want to go back next year and do it again,” Schulman says.
“I will be doing this even after I graduate,” Owusu-Achampong adds. “I think it’s really important to be a part of something bigger than yourself. This event is changing the lives of thousands of people.”
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