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Special Olympics is Special Learning Opportunity for Keuka College Students

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From left: Sierra Johnson '23, Miranda Motyka '22, Malen Moeri '21, and Kaitlin Pekow '21, with an athlete who was signing with the College students and asking them for hugs. They were part of a contingent who attended the 50th Anniversary of the New York State Special Olympics. (photo provided)

More than a dozen Keuka College students gathered for lessons in an unusual “classroom” recently: Rochester’s Riverside Convention Center.

The students were among those attending the opening ceremony of the 50thanniversary of the Special Olympics New York Winter Games, Friday, Feb. 21. They joined cheering fans, known as Fans in the Stands, to support the athletes—and to view the field of social work from a special perspective.

“We were their fans, so as they ran out, we all cheered them on,” says Taejonea Brooks Marrow ’21, a social work majorfrom Wyandanch. “They were just as happy to see us as we were to see them, and I think that was the best part.”

The third annual trip, sponsored by the College’s Association of Future Social Workers (AFSW), saw 15 students travel to Rochester’s Riverside Convention Center for the opening ceremony, which marked the beginning of two days of competition at sites across the region. It’s another example of the many ways Keuka College weaves off-site, experiential learning into its curricula.

“It’s an inspiring and heart-warming tradition where athletes from all over New York state come together to kick off the competition for the weekend,” says Madalyn McClenahan ’21, a social work major from Johnson City. “Hundreds of athletes filed through the crowd of supporters, receiving encouragement and lots of high-fives.”

Kaitlin Pekow ’21, a social work major from Liverpool, agrees.

“It just warms my heart seeing the smiles on everyone’s face, and it makes me excited to start my future career,” says Kaitlin, who has attended the opening ceremonies for three years. 

The experience made Sierra Johnson ’23 more confident in discovering her passion for working with individuals with differing abilities. 

“It also made me realize how much events like the Special Olympics can bring so many people together,” says Sierra, who formed a particular bond with one of the athletes. 

“When she was hugging me, I could literally feel her excitement and emotions,” says Sierra, a social work major from Mount Vernon. “I was lucky enough to get a picture with her, and she loved my sign that said ‘Keuka Supports You.’ I saw how much it made her smile and let her keep it. That moment in time will forever have a special part in my heart.”

That’s just what Professor of Social Work and adviser to AFSW Stephanie Craig was hoping for. By attending the opening ceremonies, she says, the College students are exposed to different and diverse people, and are enlightened to other avenues of social work. 

“AFSW has truly embraced the event, and I hope the students see the diversity and understand a different avenue of social work,” says Professor Craig, who has been involved with Special Olympics for several years, and led the trip. “I want them to see how hard these athletes prepare, how hard they work, and just how good these athletes truly are. Everybody is a winner, and the students really had a great experience. It truly opens their hearts and minds.”

The College contingent also heard remarks from keynote speaker Loretta Claiborne, who was one of the first athletes to become involved in the Special Olympics in 1970. She was friends with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics. Harrison Philips, a defensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, also spoke.

Also attending the opening ceremonies were social work majors Hallie Bissonette ’21, from Buskirk, Malen Moeri ’21, from Raymond, Maine, Miranda Motyka ’22, from North Rose, Lizsandra Peralta ’22, from Hauppauge, Grant Riehl ’23, from Penn Yan, Carley Sykora ’23, from Cameron Mills, Jenna Trabalzi ’21, from Walworth, and Skylar White ’21, from McGraw; child and family studies majors Abby Hampton ’21, from Rochester, and Olivia Varallo ’22, from Hammondsport; and occupational therapy major Morgan Blake ’21, from Buffalo.

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