Today, we’re honored to begin Special Olympics Pennsylvania: #50for50, a year-long series featuring the people of Special Olympics Pennsylvania. We hope you enjoy this journey as much as we enjoy talking to those who make our organization what it is…
#50for50: Volume 1 ▪️ Wayne Chisolm ▪️ 48 years old ▪️ Area M
“In track & field my favorite event is the 1500m. I love the feeling of hanging behind and then catching people right at the end. It feels good, but sometimes I get tired. … I like to wear crazy wigs and hats all the time. Just to stand out. I like getting attention from everybody, but sometimes the coach tells me not to wear them. … I grew up in Harrisburg and I’ve lived there my whole life. I’ve been a part of Special Olympics for 40 years and have gone to every Fall Fest and went to Nationals in 2014. They recognized me for being there 30 years. I was inducted into the [Special Olympics Pennsylvania] Hall of Fame in ’05, too, and that felt really good to be recognized. … I work at the Weis Market on Union Deposit Road in frozen foods. Stocking them and things like that. I’ve been doing that for 28 years. … Being in Special Olympics, it means I meet new people, see new faces. You get to challenge other people when you race and you get to be brave in the attempt. You compete, but you also encourage others to come out on top. … I’m proud to be a part of Special Olympics and represent Area M.”
As she’ll tell you herself, Celine Heffron-Pero — a Special Olympics Pennsylvania athlete from Chester County — is the type of person who is determined to accomplish her goals.
And, in the case of becoming a Special Olympics athlete, whereas many athletes learn about the program from school or a family friend, Celine browsed the internet, found her local program and began competing.
From there, her Special Olympics journey over the course of the last four years has included everything from competing at state-wide competitions such as Summer Games and Fall Festival to a trip to Seattle to take part in the 2018 USA Games with her Unified soccer team.
Along the way, Celine has made a number of close friends but perhaps none closer than Julia Ewing. Julia, a junior at Ursinus College, met Celine through the Best Buddies program during her freshman year at Ursinus.
“Best Buddies was something I wasn’t familiar with, but I think it’s really good for people to build relationships with somebody they wouldn’t necessarily meet in a regular setting,” Ewing said.
After quickly discovering that both shared a common love of soccer — Julia is a standout on Ursinus’ team where this past season she scored two goals, assisted one more and led the team in shots on goal — they bonded. And what started as somewhat of a pre-scheduled obligation blossomed into a true friendship.
Celine, 26, attends all of Ursinus’ games — home and away (whenever possible) — and Julia said she’s definitely the team’s “number one fan.” As a result, Celine can frequently be found hanging out with the team, even when soccer isn’t involved. For Celine’s most recent birthday, Julia & the Bears threw her a birthday party in their suite on campus. As a gift, the team presented Celine with a signed jersey bearing Julia’s No. 7.
“They wanted to give it to me because they know that I support their team and I go to all of their games. I like supporting their team,” Heffron-Pero said.
But it’s not just Celine who attends Julia’s games. Whenever their schedule allows, the Ursinus women’s soccer team comes out to Special Olympics events to cheer on Celine. Most recently, they attended Fall Fest at Villanova University to return the favor to their top supporter.
“We get the team together and go to her Special Olympics events as much as we possibly can,” Ewing, 20, said. “Anything where we can incorporate Celine into the dynamic, we really appreciate it because not everyone gets to experience that.”
Looking back on the commitment she made as a freshman, Julia said she didn’t expect to make a genuine connection with someone through the Best Buddies program.
“She’s a part of the family. She can reach out to any of us. That’s how our chemistry works.”
Ursinus junior Julia Ewing on Celine Heffron-Pero
“I thought it’d be something fun I could do to take my mind off school. But Celine is different,” Ewing said. “We’re able to talk about soccer or school or vent to each other. There’s really no boundaries.
“I think Celine feels that with me and the rest of the team. She’s a part of the family. She can reach out to any of us. That’s how our chemistry works. It’s an inner-squad. We don’t struggle by ourselves. We’ve very open.”
Celine — who in addition to playing Unified soccer, has competed in athletics, basketball, skiing and snowshoeing — has attended NWSL games with Julia as well as a US Women’s National Team game at Talon Energy Stadium in Chester for Julia’s birthday.
“[Hanging out with the team] makes me feel like I don’t have a disability. I can be myself,” Heffron-Pero said.
This year, the Bears invited Celine to their annual Halloween practice. They’ve gone out to grab some pizza and to the Sixers. They all shared a Friendsgiving feast together and text and Snapchat one another all the time.
“Julia makes sure that I’m included in pretty much everything,” Heffron-Pero said. “It’s really nice to do. They really make me feel welcomed at Ursinus.”
The Bears, however, weren’t without their on-field struggles this season as they played to a final record of 4-11-2. That can be challenging for any athlete, let alone student-athletes who are also trying to balance academics and life.
“We had a bit of a rough year, but we’ve always prided ourselves in our team chemistry and our connections with each other,” Ewing said. “Through all our hardships, we’re able to keep that positivity going strong.”
And Celine, for sure, has played no small role in helping to foster that unbreakable culture of emotional strength.
“Honestly, it’s just amazing how impactful [our friendship] has been,” Ewing said. “Just to know that even with the challenging season we just experienced, we still have this person who’s a die-hard fan no matter what.
“She doesn’t care about the wins and losses. She just loves us for us. And that means everything.”
Eight years ago, Erie’s Powerlifting program was dormant. Special Olympics Pennsylvania athletes and coaches in Erie City and Erie County (which have since combined to form one program) had come and go, but for one reason or another it didn’t stick.
That’s where John Leonard comes in. John, a Special Education teacher at Erie High School, first heard about Special Olympics through other educators and administrators at the school. He and his wife, Nicole, were instantly drawn to the organization.
And if you took one look at John, you’d know he was drawn to powerlifting as well. All of his muscles are seemingly four times that of the average person and his head is shaved bald — an unspoken prerequisite in the powerlifting community. John doesn’t just look the part. He competes regularly and is a tested United States Powerlifting Association lifter.
“I really wanted to get a powerlifting team started in Erie,” said Leonard, 35, who’s been lifting since he was a teenager. “Powerlifting’s my thing and what I’ve done for years. I decided once we started the program, that I was going to continue it regardless of what I had going on in my personal life. I didn’t want it to get to a point where it had no coach.”
So John gathered interested athletes and began training at the nearest-available space — the weight room at his high school. And, like 99 percent of high school weight rooms, the conditions weren’t ideal. It was dingy. Equipment was rusting. And, perhaps worst of all, there was no visibility to help the program grow. Five seasons came and went and, while the program was gaining traction and athletes were getting stronger, it still hadn’t taken that next step.
“Right away he offered his facility for us to train at. And once the athletes started practicing there, Jeff fell in love with it,” Leonard said.
Soon after Erie’s team began holding practices at CrossFit FBO, Jeff asked to join the team as an assistant coach. From there, he’s helped secure sponsorships for the team and been integral in fundraising and travel planning.
“The big thing that made a huge difference was Jeff and his gym opening their doors and being nothing but supportive. There was never a conversation about money or what they get out of it. From the beginning, he was all in,” Leonard said.
“My athletes feel like they’re a part of something instead of just putting us in the basement of an old weight room. Everyone in the gym embraces us. They stop what they’re doing and come over and watch practice or see if they can help out in any way.”
Since moving into the new space, not only has John added Jeff, 50, to his coaching staff, but he’s acquired two additional assistant coaches. This year, CrossFit FBO created a fundraising team for the Erie Polar Plunge and took a frigid dip into Lake Erie. Together, the team raised $1,924 to support Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Since connecting with CrossFit FBO, the team has raised funds for things like new warmup uniforms and sweatshirts.
The outpouring of support from the gym community has been so strong that John’s had to turn some people away since all of the coaching spots on the roster are currently occupied. Take look at CrossFit FBO’s Facebook posts from early November and you’ll see exactly what Erie’s team means to this powerlifting family — especially the posts from this year’s Fall Festival at Villanova University, where Jeff shared videos of all of the athletes’ lifts.
Erie’s current roster is comprised of: Jayden Gorring, Reshema Henderson, Ryan Kelly, Brandon Olson, Stephen Schwab and Cody Sedziak.
“I think we have a really good mix [of personalities]. We have some athletes that are very serious and strictly business. And then we have some guys that are real silly,” Leonard said. “Two of our athletes are engaged and so they push each other and support each other.”
In addition to having a facility that is so inclusive, Erie’s team has a head coach with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. In tandem with his assistant coaches and his wife Nicole — who is also very active in Special Olympics and helps John with all the necessary paperwork and clearances — they’ve elevated the expectations for what it means to be a member of Erie’s powerlifting team.
“It gives me a really unique perspective,” Leonard said. “I feel like I’m able to challenge my athletes and, based on my experience, I know what’s going to come up next for them.
“It can sometimes be hard, mentally, for any powerlifter. So I can prepare them for the peaks and valleys of the sport. I think that keeps them interested and motivated and wanting to come back year after year.”
One of the cooler things about being on a powerlifting team — and there are many — is that the athletes are held to the same standard during competition as any lifter competing outside of Special Olympics would be. Where in some Special Olympics sports there may be minor rules adjustments here and there, that isn’t so with lifting.
“I think it gives our athletes a lot of credibility within the powerlifting community,” Leonard said. “Some people might have this perception that it’s not competitive or not a real sport, but we’re coaching our athletes to compete at a high level. If I wanted to take any of my athletes to a meet outside of Special Olympics, they would be successful at that meet.”
As the program continues to grow, John, Jeff, Nicole and the rest of the team are hopeful they’ve set an unbreakable foundation in place for years to come.
“I hope to continue to get more athletes. It’d be nice to have one of the bigger delegations,” he said. “I hope to be in the position, one day, where I’m an old man and I’m still doing this. That would be cool.”
As we continue to celebrate a lifetime of inclusion over the course of the next 11 months, today we’re so excited to release our 50th Anniversary logo!
Our anniversary logo incorporates our primary Special Olympics Pennsylvania logo, while emphasizing the “50” in a featured position. Below the 50 you can see the dates of our inception (1970) and the upcoming anniversary year (2020).
Alternate versions of our logo, as well as multiple resources for our logo programs, can be found by following this link!
Hello everybody! We’re ECSTATIC to be able to share the announcement of our latest project with you today: Special Olympics Pennsylvania: #50for50
As you may have heard, we’re celebrating our 50th Anniversary this year (yep, we’re officially old). And as part of the celebration, we are going to embark on a year-long journey together. Once a week over the course of the next 50 weeks, we will feature a different athlete/coach/volunteer/staff member — and anyone in between who helps make this organization so incredible!
A new post will be published every Friday, so be sure to keep an eye out! The series begins on Friday, Nov. 29 and we’re so incredibly excited to be able to share this with you.
You can follow the series on all of our social media accounts [Instagram, Twitter & Facebook] as well as right here on our blog.