The Daily Gamecock

Special Olympics student organization fosters collegiate community engagement at USC

The Special Olympics is the world's foremost sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. USC is set to join this legacy with its first Special Olympics club.

The Special Olympics College Club connects college students with fellow community members who have intellectual disabilities. The club aims to enhance participants' lives through  engaging in sports, participating in community service and supporting social justice initiatives aligned with Special Olympics. Participants must be 18 years old or older to participate, and there is no maximum age requirement.

Second-year graduate student Keaton Bentley is the president of the Special Olympics College Club at USC. He said the club hosts a variety of events so that members can enjoy different activities and interests.

"Our unified events are primarily through sports, so things like maybe basketball or flag football or soccer, but we also are going to host events such as movie nights, social hangouts and parties to make sure we're gauging everyone that has interest," Bentley said.

After starting a Special Olympics student organization at Colorado State University as an undergraduate , Bentley knew he wanted to start one at USC, he said.

"We're hoping that, long term, people with and without disabilities from the surrounding Columbia area will know who we are and feel comfortable and look forward to coming to our events," Bentley said. "Just creating one big, new family."

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The Special Olympics College Club has partnered with the South Carolina's Special Olympics organization as well as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Bentley said these groups have been instrumental in making the USC organization a reality. 

He said the Special Olympics College Club is aiming for rapid growth, but the staff is approaching it one step at a time by hosting tabling events during organization fairs and creating a profile on Garnet Gate. The whole student body is encouraged to participate, he said.

"The essence of this club is just pure happiness," Bentley said. "If you're looking for an event where you can be involved, meet new friends and walk out of there knowing that you made a difference in someone's life — this is our club."

Kayla Adler, a third-year exercise science student, joined USC's Special Olympics club to look at forming a gymnastics team. She said that the club is hoping to educate people about working alongside people with disabilities.

"I think that there's not a huge club representation of the unified community," Adler said. "I think that one of the biggest things that we're hoping to see is just increased awareness and also increased training for — we have a ton of pre-health students that want to go into healthcare and working with people with disabilities and things like that. And so training people how to comfortably handle situations is huge."

Travis Luthren, a Special Olympics athlete and program associate at Special Olympics South Carolina, said he believes joining USC's Special Olympics club can help students with disabilities become more involved in the college experience. 

"Keaton has the experience of the college lifestyle, and for me, I was born with Down Syndrome," Luthren said. "I thought it would be a great opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities to have a life here at USC."

Luthren said that all students who have disabilities and special needs could benefit from joining the club because it opens up many doors for them and allows for growth in a variety of areas.

"(This club) helps with all my dear friends to have the opportunity to do what they do in sports," Luthren said. "It helps them to give back in the community. It helps to teach them public speaking skills. It helps them to go out there, meet people. It helps them in life, every day topics." 

The Special Olympics College Club's first event is still in the works as club officers look for a suitable venue to host it. The organization will aim to hold its first event in February.