The isolation that came with the COVID-19 pandemic was felt acutely by many people with intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics Idaho, the state’s leading organization for engaging people with intellectual disabilities, had to halt most events, drastically reducing its program catalog over the past year.
Many people who have intellectual disabilities may also have health conditions that put them at high risk for contracting the novel coronavirus.
“There were a lot of challenges with COVID. It was a very difficult year for a lot of people across the nation and globally,” said Opey Penaloga, chief operating officer at Special Olympics Idaho. “It was especially difficult for people with intellectual disabilities. Getting the athletes back to sports, fitness and training is essential—not just for building relationships, but also for their health.”
After a year with a mostly empty calendar, the organization’s staff enthusiastically — and safely — welcomed back athletes and families in May at three regional Idaho State Games. The competitions, in lieu of one large event, were held in Idaho Falls, Caldwell and Coeur d’Alene.
“They were much smaller, but after a year of missing the games, it was pretty exciting to get back to the playing field,” said Penaloga, who recently joined the organization with new Chief Executive Officer Kristi Kraft. “I know the athletes were pretty excited to get back to sports training and competition.”
St. Luke’s, through a Community Health Improvement Fund grant, helped sponsor the games and various health-focused efforts from Special Olympics Idaho.
One of the most valuable lessons learned from the pandemic, Penaloga said, was the importance of mental health, especially for the Special Olympics Idaho athletes.
“We found out over the course of this last year that mental health is so important and … can be invisible. There is a big gap in services for people with intellectual disabilities,” he said.
Penaloga and the staff recently launched a new program, “Healthy Minds,” aimed at supporting the Special Olympic athletes’ mental health. The effort complements the organization’s “Healthy Athlete” screenings, where trained health care professionals, equipped with a variety of communication techniques, connect with athletes to monitor their health and well-being.
“We are serving somewhere around the order of 3,000 athletes across the state of Idaho, but we know there are thousands more people with intellectual disabilities that we aren’t reaching,” Penaloga said. “Funding and support from partners like St. Luke’s help us to close that health care and screening gap for people with intellectual disabilities, allowing us to reach more people with intellectual disabilities across the state of Idaho.”
Special Olympics Idaho will send a team of 18 athletes next summer to the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Fla.
The athletes will start training for the national stage in the coming weeks and will receive coaching from local and national experts. Special Olympics Idaho will provide an extension of its Healthy Athletes initiative in the virtual space, allowing them to coordinate a home-based fitness and training campaign, supported in part by St. Luke’s.
“I’m really happy we have this partnership,” Penaloga said. “It makes sense, given what we do and what St. Luke’s is passionate about as well.”
Daniel Mediate works in the St. Luke’s Community Engagement department.