Students form Special Olympics club at SUNY Cortland

Editor’s Note: The following is a press release from the SUNY Cortland Communications Office.

Two SUNY Cortland students who coached for Special Olympics in high school continued their commitment in college this year by creating a new, 30-student campus club that trains local special-needs children for competition.

And their first competition is bigger than the club founders imagined.   Young athletes trained by the Cortland Stars Special Olympics Club will get to compete against Special Olympians from Ithaca as part of the annual Cortland Classic track and field event at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex April 21-22.

“Our athletes will have an opportunity to compete with their peers, the other Special Olympians, and with our college athletes as well,” said freshman Catherine Troiano, who created the club with sophomore Kaitlyn Perlongo. “The integration of how our athletes work with them is really cool. Our athletes are going to get bib numbers and they’ll be officially timed and listed on the website. It’s super great how they’re going to be treated just like how any college athlete will be treated. That’s really exciting for them.”

Troiano and Perlongo grew up together in Putnam and Westchester Counties, linked by a common bond: They both dedicated their free time to coaching Special Olympians.

In this, both students were influenced by their parents. Troiano’s mother, Nancy Bellini, and her stepfather, Joe Bellini, are program director and program coordinator, respectively, at North East Westchester Special Recreation, a community-based therapeutic recreation agency serving children and adults with developmental disabilities. Perlongo’s mother, Kim Perlongo, a special education teacher, works with the agency part-time.

When Troiano, a therapeutic recreation major from Katonah, N.Y., arrived on campus this fall, she decided to found the Cortland Stars Special Olympics Club in order to offer similar coaching experiences to SUNY Cortland students and provide opportunities for people with developmental disabilities in the Cortland area. Troiano is the club’s president and Perlongo, an inclusive education major from Brewster, N.Y., is vice president.

“We’ve both been connected with people with developmental disabilities,” Troiano said. “We always grew up going to practices and programs so it’s been part of our lives since we can remember.”

During the fall semester, Troiano and Perlongo worked behind the scenes to get the club off the ground, connecting with Karli Buday, the Cortland-Tompkins area coordinator for Special Olympics. The SUNY Cortland students also reached out to organizations in the local community that support people with disabilities, including schools, in search of young people with developmental disabilities who could benefit from training sessions.

“This is amazing for the Special Olympics athletes that reside in Cortland and it provides so many valuable opportunities,” said Buday. “None of this could be possible without Catherine and Kaitlyn leading the way. They have taken it upon themselves to visit local agencies such as the Franziska Rackers Centers to chat with possible athletes and also raise awareness.”

Nancy and Joe Bellini visited campus early in the spring semester to offer general and basketball-specific training to a group of 30 SUNY Cortland student coaches recruited by Troiano and Perlongo.

The club meets on Tuesday evenings in the Moffett Center Gymnasium. A group of six school-age children work with the SUNY Cortland student coaches, who have trained their charges in basketball, floor hockey and track and field events. At the conclusion of the semester, having completed the requisite hours of training, the student coaches will become certified coaches themselves.

“We are truly grateful for our volunteers, committee members and coaches, including Catherine and Kaitlyn, who dedicate their time to develop our local programs,” Buday said. “It means so much to the athletes in the Tompkins- Cortland Area.”

Connor Lewis, the club’s secretary, played a key role in helping the Cortland Stars end the semester on a big stage. A sophomore exercise science major from Glen Ridge, N.Y., Lewis is a member of SUNY Cortland’s track and field team. He and track and field head coach Steve Patrick worked on a plan to include the Cortland Stars in the Cortland Classic, an annual invitational meet open to college athletes from across New York state. The Cortland Stars will compete in standing and running long jumps and walking and running events as part of the meet.

Saturday’s events begin at 9:30 a.m. and the meet continues starting at 10 a.m. on Sunday. Paula Cusano, who coaches Special Olympians in the Ithaca area, is bringing a team of 12 athletes to join the Cortland Stars at the meet.

“Our athletes love having practice with all of the college kids around them,” Perlongo said. “For them to be able to go to that meet will be so exciting, to be surrounded by these people who are role models for them.”

On a recent Tuesday evening, Lewis headed straight for Moffett Center to help coach at the Cortland Stars’ weekly meeting. He helped the young athletes work on their long jumps and basketball skills, offering plenty of laughs and encouragement along the way. Lewis can’t wait to watch the Cortland Stars show off their skills at the Cortland Classic meet.

“It’s really exciting for me,” he said. “When we mentioned it to them, they shrieked. I know for me, I love to compete, and these kids have so much heart too. They’re into it as much as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

The NCAA Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) initiated a partnership with Special Olympics in 2011. The purpose of this partnership is to enhance the lives of Division III student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes through mutual learning experiences, provide a platform for recognition of Special Olympics athletes and raise awareness of Special Olympics’ programs and services.

The Cortland Stars’ leaders feel that they have already taken large steps toward accomplishing that mission.

“You start a club and you think the first semester or two, you’ll work out all the kinks,” Perlongo said. “But we’re going to this track meet and it’s really nice to see the Cortland campus and community trying to work with us. They’ve been open to us and our athletes.”

Troiano stresses that the club isn’t limited to those with backgrounds in therapeutic recreation, inclusive education or prior experience with the Special Olympics. She hopes to see the club continue to build its staff of student coaches in the years to come.

“It’s super fun to be able to hang out and play sports,” she said. “Our athletes give us so much for us to learn about. They’re in such great moods and they’re so positive. It teaches our coaches a lot about having to be good leaders and being a role model and the important skills we try to learn throughout college.”

Contact the Special Olympics Club for more information.

Prepared by SUNY Cortland Communications Office writing intern Ben Mayberry