Sports can unify various backgrounds and abilities. It is a powerful vehicle that facilitates shared experiences, encouraging competition, collaboration and perseverance. Football and the Green Bay Packers have long served as a common source of unity and pride for Wisconsinites. In a similar way, Special Olympics Wisconsin works to empower individuals with intellectual disabilities by using sports as a catalyst. With programming centered around health and education, Special Olympics works to end inactivity, injustice and intolerance. In August, Special Olympics Wisconsin was recognized in a unique way for its 50-year legacy in creating inclusive communities across the state.
The nonprofit organization was honored at the Packers preseason game at Lambeau Field against the New Orleans Saints on Aug. 19, 2022. This was the second annual Packers Give Back Game, recognizing Special Olympics as the event's nonprofit honoree this year. Each season, the Packers host a Give Back Game during the preseason to support a Wisconsin charity by giving them the opportunity to spread awareness and share their message with attending fans.
"The Give Back Game gives the Packers an opportunity to highlight the good work being done by a nonprofit each year," said community outreach manager Amanda Wery. "Providing the experience of a game to its members and raising awareness and support for a new nonprofit each year goes to our core values as a community-owned team. We look forward to making it a tradition."
Nearly 1,000 Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes and their loved ones were in attendance and received a free bus ride to the game, as well as enjoyed amenities offered at Lambeau Field along with food and beverage gift cards. There was also a designated stadium section for Special Olympics Wisconsin in the north end zone, teeming with excited athletes and guests all donned in red Special Olympics T-shirts. The group's energy was electric and filled with anticipation, since for many of them, it was their first time at Lambeau Field. They cheered, waved to players, chanted and brought an unparalleled amount of Packers pride to the stadium.
"We're pleased to have Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes and volunteers join us for the Packers Give Back Game," said Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy when Special Olympics was announced as the game's beneficiary. "Regardless of an athlete's ability, being involved in sports and being included as part of a team can be life changing for countless individuals. We're proud to honor Special Olympics Wisconsin for their work in bringing visibility to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion on and off the playing field in Wisconsin."
Prior to kickoff, several Special Olympics athletes took to the field lead by a Special Olympics torch to recite the Athlete Oath. Fans were also invited to join in on the oath which states: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." The Athlete Oath is significant to Special Olympics athletes because they recite it at the opening ceremonies of each competition in which they participate. It serves as a reminder to themselves and others that they are a part of a courageous legacy. Their goal is to dedicate themselves to achieve great heights through their efforts.
At halftime, the Special Olympics unified flag football teams took part in a game on the field, engaging in some good-natured competition. "This is the most amazing moment of my life," one athlete excitedly exclaimed, when exiting the players' tunnel onto the field before the competition. The coed team consisted of Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities, ID) and unified partners (individuals without ID), championing their mission of inclusivity.
"Our Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes have been emailing, calling and sending texts to say thank you. For many of the athletes it was the first time they had ever been to Lambeau Field. For our athletes who were on the field for the Athlete Oath or the halftime flag football scrimmage, they will cherish those memories forever," said Special Olympics Wisconsin President & CEO Chad Hershner. "The Packers Give Back Game was such an incredible experience. We thank the Packers for everything and for helping to elevate and spread the word about Our Team and our shared commitment to inclusion."
The Packers joined Special Olympics Wisconsin earlier this year in collaboration with the Milwaukee Bucks, Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Admirals for the OUR TEAM initiative to celebrate inclusion across sport. OUR TEAM's goal is to celebrate athletes of all abilities across Wisconsin and engage fans, players, partners and media to promote inclusion. This is all in effort to recognize Wisconsin as the first state of inclusion by 2072. OUR TEAM is in coordination with the 50th Anniversary of Special Olympics Wisconsin, and with the community's support, Special Olympics Wisconsin is on a trajectory to grow engagement and funding with all communities it serves—not only this year but for the next 50 years.
"When we announced the OUR TEAM partnership in April, we knew it would be game-changing not only for the athletes of Special Olympics Wisconsin but for all athletes of all abilities in Wisconsin," said Hershner. "The Green Bay Packers have proven their commitment to this first-of-its-kind initiative."
Packers lineman Elgton Jenkins is the official Special Olympics Wisconsin player ambassador for the Green Bay Packers. "Throughout my sports journey, from growing up in Mississippi to being drafted by the Packers, I've been fortunate to have the support of many teammates, mentors and coaches along the way," said Jenkins. "Being involved in sports can teach you so much about life and being part of a team offers so many valuable lessons that can be applied off the field, too. OUR TEAM will bring visibility to the principles of inclusion, diversity and equity on and off the playing field in Wisconsin. I am happy to help share the mission of Special Olympics Wisconsin."
Special Olympics Wisconsin is a statewide organization of the Special Olympics movement that unleashes the transformative power and joy of sports everyday around the world. Through work in sports, health, education and community building, Special Olympics has been empowering people with intellectual disabilities for more than 50 years, leading to a more welcoming and inclusive society. With the support of donors, coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics Wisconsin provides year-round sports training and nearly 150 yearly athletic events featuring 19 Olympic-type sports to nearly 9,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Connecting with Special Olympics Wisconsin is easy through online community spaces such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For more information about the positive impact Special Olympics Wisconsin programming continues to make for people with intellectual disabilities, visit SpecialOlympicsWisconsin.org or call (608) 222-1324.