Special Olympics BC President and CEO Dan Howe
By Spencer van Vloten
For decades, Special Olympics BC has provided life-changing athletic and social experiences for persons with intellectual disabilities. Spencer van Vloten talked with Special Olympics BC President and CEO Dan Howe about the impact of the pandemic and how the organization has grown stronger in the process.
Spencer: Simply put: how’s it been going for Special Olympics BC?
Dan: Before the pandemic, there were 5200 people in our programs, we had 18 different sports running, we had fitness and health programs, and participants from ages 2 to 92.
But when the pandemic hit, we had to close all in-person programs, and we began to adapt and hold virtual programs, like Club Fit and social connection programs. Then the COVID numbers started to improve, and we gradually opened in-person programs for a small percentage of our athletes, with everyone else still participating online.
Now, just recently with the surge of cases, we’ve had to close in person programs again and go back to all virtual. But our virtual programs have grown, and we are offering coaching in specific elements of sports, for example floor hockey and basketball workshops where our athletes can continue to build their skills from home.
We will continue like this until we can roll out in-person programs in a safe, modified way.
Spencer: What have you heard from the athletes and families?
Dan: A couple of different messages stand out.
The 1st is how important the social aspect of sport is. The athletics are important, but the experience of getting together with each other at practices and events—of seeing your friends, meeting new ones, and building social skills—is even bigger, and that has been missing to some extent; online programs are great, but the social connection and activity is not the same.
At the same time, for certain individuals and caregivers, there are underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to the virus, so they are understandably cautious and not as eager to get back into programs at the moment.
So it's important that even when our in-person activities resume, we still have options for people who aren't quite comfortable returning to them straight away.
The athletics are important, but the experience of getting together...is even bigger.
Spencer: Has the impact of the pandemic varied by region?
Dan: In the early days of the pandemic, some regions were largely unaffected, so activities could continue in those areas while they had to stop in others. But now with the cases having spread through province, and limitations on gatherings applied to all areas, things have evened out in terms of what areas can operate and what programs can be offered.
Across the province, regardless of region, there has been plenty of both apprehension and eagerness. We've worked together to develop strong protocols and safety measures that will make a return to sports as comfortable as possible for our athletes and families.
Spencer: What have you learned as a result of the pandemic?
Dan: As mentioned, seeing friends and coaches is so important for Special Olympians, and not everyone has access to internet or the required technology to participate online. These participants are feeling especially isolated, and it highlights to us how important the social aspect of our programs is.
But through technology and ongoing learning, we are now able to reach coaches and athletes much easier in some aspects. We can do training without long travel, can coach from across the province, and help coaches connect and develop their abilities to bring out the best in our participants.
It’s also easier to collect input now. By developing our virtual capacities, we are having more conversations across the province, and hearing from coaches, families, and athletes who may not have been able to attend in-person consultations, which was especially an issue for people in remote areas.
The great thing is that none of these capabilities disappear once the pandemic passes; we can move forward with tools that will make us stronger than we were before.
By developing our virtual capacities, we are having more conversations across the province
Spencer: Special Olympics BC athlete Matthew Williams was recently name Special Olympian of the Year. Has this helped boost spirits and inspire your athletes during the pandemic?
Dan: Matt is an inspiration all the time, pandemic or not. He’s a gentleman, a great athlete, and has a wonderful way with people. When he shines, so does everyone else. But we have so many athletes who recognize that COVID is a reality, and that we need to make the best of it.
They have all worked to be as positive and engaging as possible, supporting one another and staying strong through the pandemic, and they are all inspirations themselves.
I have the biggest appreciation and respect for our coaches who have continued putting together great coaching resources and developed new ways to engage with athletes, and for our athletes and families—who have put their frustrations aside and worked on getting through this.
Speed skating star Matthew Williams
Spencer: What would your message be to the Special Olympians and families across BC who might feel down about missing the activities or are worried about what will be offered in the future?
Dan: Going ahead will be challenging, but interesting and rewarding.
It will be a challenge to get facilities again for a lot of our sports, and there will be the added difficulty having a restricted number of people who can gather.
There is also the comfort level we will have to deal with. Even when activities resume, some athletes may not feel comfortable enough to participate yet. We need to keep offering options for these athletes until they are ready to return, and then to show them just how thorough our safety protocols are. Volunteers must be re-engaged along with athletes as well, as it’s been a year since many of them were involved.
But all of this can be dealt with successfully. We’ve added new depth to our programs, and we will work to get as much happening at the community level as possible. This is where most athletes get the biggest benefit, through training and socializing with others, and from there we can gradually bring events and competitions back.
We are so lucky to work with these athletes, their families, and their coaches, and we are finding a way through this together; the future will be challenging but bright.
We are so lucky to work with these athletes, their families, and their coaches, and we are finding a way through this together.