SHAWNEE, Kan. —As Special Olympic athletes gear up to return to the field, court and pool this summer, one local team is asking for a little extra community support.
Members of Shawnee Storm have requested the City of Shawnee allocate funding for a full-time employee to help run the program.
Shawnee Storm, a local branch of Kansas Special Olympics, provides support for athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since 2008 the program has grown from 11 athletes to more than 50. Peggy Schmitt, Local Program Co-Coordinator for Special Olympics Shawnee, says the team needs help from the city to avoid volunteer burnout.
“We are 100 percent volunteers and we love it, but for the sake of keeping the team strong in the long term, we just feel like it’s time to ask the city to help,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said the goal would be to have the city assume a role similar to what the City of Olathe and City of Kansas City, Kansas provide for its Special Olympic athletes.
Last month the team spoke to the Shawnee City Council requesting assistance.
Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell said it’s unclear how much it could cost the city to take over the team, but staff are working to find a solution. The city council has directed city staff to collect cost estimates for ways to support Shawnee Storm in the city budget.
“Right now we have zero dollars that’s budgeted for special needs programming specifically. We have parks programming that has a budget of its own,” Larson-Bunnell said. “We do not have the parks staff to do any additional programming. Even if we had the availability of fields or courts or whatever was necessary, we just don’t have the staff to increase parks programming.”
Based on data from Johnson County Developmental Supports, Schmitt estimates there are approximately 1,000 residents in Shawnee that have developmental or intellectual disabilities. She said many of the athletes they work with have jobs throughout Shawnee and work hard to be part of the community.
“We really want the city to understand that our individuals in the special population are individuals and they need to be looked at as a person, just like everybody else. They want activities, they want events. They want to be part of the community,” Schmitt said. “They are working in our Shawnee businesses. They are really working hard to be a part of the community and that helps everyone. That helps them continue to grow and be a major part of our city. If we’re not providing additional services in any way for them through the city, I feel like it’s a big void that is missing.”
Miranda Stone is a Shawnee Storm athlete that participates in bowling, cheerleading and softball. Stone said the best part of being a member of the Shawnee Storm is spending time with her friends.
“They’re my friends. I mean, what would I do without them? They’re my buddies and I’m grateful that all you guys let me join in,” Stone said.
Larson-Bunnell said the council may consider several funding options, including funding for general special needs programming, as well as options for hiring a city employee to manage the team.
“When you think about what Shawnee really stands for. What the heart of our community is, these individuals are at the heart of our community,” Larson-Bunnell said. “Whatever we can do to support them I think is incredibly important and it really shows who we are as a community and where we choose to prioritize.”
Larson-Bunnell said if the city provides the team with additional support, it could bring future Special Olympic games and tournaments to Shawnee. She said that could lead to a boost in foot traffic for local shops and restaurants.
City staff are working to collect information on how allocating funding for special needs programming could affect the overall city budget. Larson-Bunnell said city staff will likely present the information at a council meet in the next few weeks.
A public hearing for the 2022 budget is scheduled for August 23 during the regular council meeting.
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