MURRAY — Earlier this week, numerous news stories began circulating about how cuts were being planned for the Special Olympics program that benefits intellectually-challenged children and adults.
Those cuts were in the amount of $18 million as President Donald Trump’s administration looked to slash 10 percent from the education budget, which amounts to $7.1 billion. On Thursday, Trump put those proposals to rest when he announced that Special Olympics would be funded.
The cuts also were not proposed for the entire Special Olympics program, just for school programs for students with disabilities. Still, in a community like Murray-Calloway County, where Special Olympics is strongly supported, the activity in Washington was being watched quite closely.
“One of the programs that would’ve been affected would’ve been Unified Champions, which is something that is growing in the area,” said Murray-Calloway County Special Olympics Coordinator Laura Miller, who watched a few months ago as Calloway County received a national award for its efforts with the Unified Champions program, becoming one of the first two Kentucky campuses to receive that honor.
Murray High became the first Kentucky campus to field a unified track and field team after the Kentucky High School Athletic Association approved the concept in 2015, with Calloway following suit a year later.
“I was nervous, of course, watching as this (talk of budget cuts) continued,” Miller said. “Like anything where you’re personally invested, you feel everybody should value programs the same way you do, and you never know what’s going to happen in politics. I was certainly glad to see this reversed so quickly.”
Special Olympics Kentucky, based in Frankfort, issued a statement after Trump said the cuts were being rescinded.
“We express our gratitude to President Trump for re-authorizing funding for Special Olympics school-based programming,” read the statement drafted by SOKY Director of Communications and External Relations Mark Buerger. “He joins a long history of over 50 years of United States Presidents and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in their support of Special Olympics and the work we do in communities throughout the country. This is a non-partisan issue and we are proud of our work to create inclusion in 6,500 U.S. schools and among young people. This is a crucial time in our schools and our communities. Programs like Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools are transforming school climates to create a safer and more inclusive world.”
Contacted Friday, Buerger said he is quite familiar with how Special Olympics is viewed in Murray-Calloway County. Murray-Calloway’s program now fields about 160 athletes as the program has experienced meteoric growth in the past 10-or-so years.
“We’re very proud that it has that kind of support and you cannot overstate the good things that have come from that program, as well as the school-related programs,” Buerger said, adding that this week was not the first time Special Olympics has had this type of uncertainty. “We’ve had times when (funding) has not been in the original budget, and there have also been times when people were concerned that it was going to be the (athletic) programs themselves that were going to be affected.”
Miller is now the professional learning coach for the West Kentucky Educational Cooperative, and she said the school-based programs are fairly new.
“We’re really growing. I fear that this would’ve stunted that growth,” she said. “This would have put an added burden on a group of people who already face challenges every day. It also would’ve meant that more fundraising would’ve been needed.”
“The thing about these programs is that they’re not just for the benefit of the people for which it’s intended; it benefits the ones who do not have disabilities. It benefits both sides, and I actually might argue that, in a lot of ways, it benefits the ones with no disabilities even more.”