Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Challenging Healthcare and Winning at Special Olympics' Wellness Park

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Challenging Healthcare and Winning at Special Olympics' Wellness Park

Article excerpt

Imagine a place full of games, prizes and healthcare providers who take the time to listen and are trained in how to treat and care for individuals with special needs. At this helpful, supportive place, children and adults with developmental disabilities can get their hearing and vision tested, receive free glasses, have a full dental work-up, oral motor and speech exam, and see doctors, trained physical therapists, orthopedists, physical trainers, information for follow-up, referrals to local providers, and a bag of goodies to take home. Sounds too good to be true, but it's not. It happens each year at Special Olympics New Jersey's Wellness Park.

"Wellness Park is a great thing," says Kristen Clark, Special Olympics (SO) champion gymnast and figure skater. "It is very important for SO athletes, it helps them know what they are capable of and what they can do. They need to know how bad their hearing or eyes are so they can test them--and about nutrition and how well they are eating."

Kristen's figure skating partner, Michael Ferraioli, agrees. "I love going to the doctors there. They told us in the dental tent how to take care of our teeth." Michael and his mother were both surprised when, following his eye exam, Michael received free glasses right there. For Michael, the best part was the goggles that came with the glasses. "I wear those goggles for softball and tennis," he exclaims. "I always use those goggles."

Kristen and Michael know that in order to skate their best, they must see well, hear well, and feel good. As with any athlete, their good health is essential for successful participation in training and competition. "The Sports and Wellness Park is one of our best efforts aimed at addressing the needs of the whole person," states Marc Edenzon, President and CEO of Special Olympics New Jersey. "By looking at the athletes' total well-being, we can help them understand the many factors that contribute to a healthy body, spirit, and mind."

"We see our athletes as individuals with complex lives, with sports being one component," Edenzon explains. "We understand that the athletes and their families are facing a number of difficult challenges related to meeting their health, education, recreation, and self-fulfillment needs. Although sport will always be the primary focus for Special Olympics, we now see the importance of addressing other factors that contribute to an athlete's readiness to succeed in training and competition."

Wellness Park is part of Special Olympics, Inc.'s (SOI) Healthy Athletes Program, a far-reaching effort that is doing much more than just improving the health and fitness of SO athletes. By offering registered athletes opportunities to see a wide variety of healthcare providers, free of charge, SOI is increasing access to healthcare for athletes, and others who attend the Games. In addition, SOI provides intensive training sessions for the physicians and students who participate, which is leading to an increased number of healthcare providers who are comfortable and qualified to care for people with MR and developmental disabilities.

Kristen Clark's mother, Pat, believes that these opportunities are invaluable. "It alerts you to the fact that your child has a need you might not be cognizant of, because they don't complain. They don't always know when something is off. I know a mother of an athlete who took her son to the audiologist at Wellness Park and found out that he had a 90 percent hearing loss in one ear. She had no awareness [of it]. Even when you think you are on top of it, you just can't keep up. It is so much to manage." Chris Aveson, Mother of 22- year-old SONJ athlete James Aveson, echoes this concern. "Right now we think James has a hearing problem, but I don't know, he can't tell me. He shouts a lot. He has his headphones on all the time and they are very loud."

What Clark and other parents find most incredible about the Park, are probably things that the general population takes for granted when they go to the doctor. …

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