At the Staley School of Leadership Studies, we spend a lot of time exploring the connection between leadership and service. Rather than watching others from the sidelines, we encourage our students and faculty to jump into the game and work together as a team to move the needle on important issues and to make victories.
In 2014, the “Be the Fan” service project was established, forging a meaningful partnership between leadership studies and the Manhattan Special Olympics.
It all began when the summer section of LEAD 212: Introduction to Leadership Concepts went to cheer on the Manhattan Special Olympics club teams at their softball games. One evening, the opposing team didn’t show up, presenting the perfect opportunity for the students in the stands to jump into the game. Rather than stepping foot onto the field as opponents, they mixed the teams up and played together.
“Initially, the students were fans for the Special Olympics athletes and before they knew it, they were out there playing with the athletes,” said Mike Finnegan, LEAD 212 Instructor. “Because the majority of our students in the LEAD 212 summer classes are K-State athletes, there is a common love for sports, so it made perfect sense to partner with the Special Olympics.”
Aside from the softball games, there are many additional opportunities for students to get involved with the athletes throughout the summer. One of those ways is through an Indoor Fun Night.
The night always kicks off with great energy, as the students and volunteers cheer on the athletes as they run onto the K-State practice field through a fog-filled tunnel.
Throughout the evening, the athletes make their way around to different stations where they are able to compete in different field games, while the volunteers cheer and encourage them along the way. At the end of the evening, the Special Olympic athletes are surrounded by both new and old fans, asking for photos and autographs to help treasure the memories made.
For the past few years, the Mandela Washington Fellows have also volunteered at the event. Micky Engonga, a Mandela Washington Fellow from Equatorial Guinea bonded with one of the athletes named Monica.
“I had the privilege to participate in different activities with Monica, who told me that she was a champion when we first met. ‘I am a champion’, she said and proved it to me as she was able to perfectly apply the rules of all the sporting activities she participated in. She is the greatest champion I have ever met, I have to admit,” said Micky. “I truly enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity we had to spend quality time with the Special Olympics athletes. Spending time with them has been a unique experience that will forever be in my memories wherever I go.”
“For me, this experience was about sharing good times with new friends. We were all a bit shy at the beginning but as we got to know each other more we started having fun together and even competed a bit with one another,” said Hiwot Amare Le Roy, a Mandela Washington Fellow from Ethiopia. “I was very touched by how they accepted and appreciated our presence. We were new to them and they were new to us, so we were all special to one another. It was about adapting your presence to the other’s needs and it was done mutually. At times, I felt like I was back to school because we were checking out the cute boys together,” Hiwot laughed.
The LEAD 212 students also have the opportunity to help with volleyball practice, help host volleyball tournaments, and several students have maintained friendships with the athletes off of the field.
Dalton Risner, a graduate of the leadership studies minor and former Kansas State offensive lineman, has been greatly impacted through his involvement with the Manhattan Special Olympics. Risner shared that it was because of the Special Olympics that he has become more keenly aware of his passion for helping others.
“Through my experiences with the Special Olympics and leadership studies, I expected to be the one impacting the athletes but found myself as the one being positively impacted by them through their kindness, love, and care for everyone around them. I remember when I first got to school here at Kansas State and was at my first Special Olympics event through my leadership studies class. I was so excited but had no idea what would come out of it. At the end of the softball game, I found myself with a pair of gloves from a Special Olympian named Michael Carpenter, who thought I was cool and wanted me to have his gloves. What I didn’t know was that moment was the start of a life-long relationship with Mike and special Olympics. Ever since, apart from the gloves being hung up on my wall, Mike and I hang out every week, keeping busy with pick-up ping pong games, jam sessions with the windows down, or even snack runs,” said Risner. “My experience with Special Olympics through the leadership Studies minor has changed my life, to say the least.”
Kemondre Taylor, a junior and leadership studies minor, was a LEAD 212 student this past summer. Taylor shared that the opportunity to be involved with the Special Olympics has allowed him to step out of his comfort zone and grow as a leader. “As a leader in my community, I have always struggled with being inclusive. This class has taught me how to step out of my comfort zone and include others, not only during class but also helping at volleyball practice and the Indoor Fun Night.”
At the end of the summer, the LEAD 212 students had an opportunity to write a letter to an athlete that had an impact on them. Julie Snyder, a freshman and leadership studies minor shared the following touching message to one of the athletes:
“From you I have learned to be happy in all that I do, to laugh at my mistakes, to introduce myself to everyone to make more friends, and lastly to get excited about everything and to make life fun. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see you do what makes you happy because you have inspired me to do the same thing. You have also inspired me to come up to one of you at the softball games and use the skills you taught me to make a new friend.”
The partnership with the Manhattan Special Olympics gives our students a chance to live out the Staley School mission statement of “Developing knowledgeable, ethical, caring, inclusive leaders for a diverse and changing world.”
“Our students have an opportunity to exercise leadership, build connections, engage across difference, and connect with the community they live in,” said Andy Wefald, a LEAD 212 Instructor. “The Special Olympic athletes get a chance to know our students and participate in various activities that foster lasting connections and relationships. Together we believe this partnership models the kind of partnership that benefits everyone involved and provides opportunities for both groups to make progress on their organizations goals.”
“Anytime we can engage in learning outside the classroom walls, students gain more than just academic content, they gain friendships which further supports that leadership is a relationship,” said Finnegan.
For those interested in being a coach for the Special Olympics or exploring additional ways to get involved, contact Kim Schnee at 785-410-0822. To stay updated on volunteer opportunities, follow Manhattan Special Olympics on Facebook.
Watch the 2018 Indoor Fun Night recap here.