Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
Megan Scremin | Special Olympics Colorado
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Megan Scremin and I’m the president and CEO of Special Olympics Colorado. I have been with SOCO for a little more than 10 years. Our organization exists to serve people with intellectual disabilities statewide, giving them opportunities to train and compete in 21 different sports year-round. While we are known as a sports organization, we give athletes the opportunity, the platform, and the tools to become leaders in any way that they choose.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I went to college at the University of Kentucky majoring in communications, and from there I moved to Arizona where I started as an intern and then got a job at the Fiesta Bowl. That was my start in event planning. I later moved to Colorado and started working at Special Olympics as director of events. I love sports and recognize what sports can do for people. This was an organization that just spoke to me and I knew I really wanted to get involved. I was creating events like Polar Plunges and the Hall of Fame, then managing the fundraising and development team. I assumed the CEO role a little more than three years ago.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I love what we do. I love the population we work with and exist to serve. The athletes with intellectual disabilities are the reason that Special Olympics exists. I think many people think of Special Olympics as a sports organization, and it’s correct that sports are at the core of what we do. However, we also use sports as a catalyst to do so much more for people with intellectual disabilities, sports that provide them with skills to help both on the field and in life. I see our organization as existing to create better opportunities and more inclusivity for people with intellectual disabilities statewide, not just on the playing field. We exist to shatter stereotypes around the abilities of people with disabilities and to break down barriers. There are a lot of barriers people with disabilities face from having access to opportunity and good health to job opportunities.
We’re very much a sports organization but I also see us playing an advocacy role. Our athletes guide our work so it’s really important to make sure all we do is led by their voice, hearing their needs and concerns. We have athletes serving in the highest positions of our organization, on our board, and on our planning committees. Our job is to elevate the voices of people with disabilities and make sure that society is as inclusive for all people as possible.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Our organization does a lot in any given year. We’re serving more than 20,000 athletes or individuals with intellectual disabilities statewide. They have more than 400 opportunities each year to train, compete, and participate. We have inclusive programming in nearly 600 schools impacting more than 500,000 students statewide through our Unified Champion Schools program. The program uses unified sports just as you would see on a JV or varsity team for students with and without intellectual disabilities competing together. We see this as an equal teammate role, to create a welcoming role for all students. The program operates in more than 25% of Colorado schools with a goal to be in 100% of schools.
Special Olympics is the largest provider of health care screenings for people with disabilities in the world. In Colorado each year, we’re providing more than 2,000 health screenings in areas such as dentistry, podiatry, and audiology. We do those in conjunction with many of our competitions to make sure people with disabilities have the same opportunity to receive good access to well-trained healthcare providers. Through no fault of their own, doctors, nurses, and medical providers enter the workforce without working with people with disabilities. The beautiful thing about our health screening is that medical professionals are able to get experience working with people with disabilities that they will integrate into their practices to better serve the entire community. On average, people with disabilities die about 20 years earlier than those without disabilities. It has nothing to do with the disability itself, it has to do with a lack of access to medical care, barriers to receiving treatment, and under trained medical workforce. We’re able to really address a lot of those barriers and make improvements.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
Our athletes certainly inspire me. I have the opportunity to really learn from them and work with them on a daily basis. We have athletes working and volunteering in our office, and I make a point to connect with as many athletes as I can. I ask them about the challenges they face, and they face so many challenges in life. So many people really don’t understand their incredible talents and abilities and make assumptions about what people with disabilities can or cannot do. I am just so inspired by athletes’ grit, kindness, compassion, and hard work. If you hire someone with disabilities, they have likely been told “no” their entire life and therefore will end up being the best workers that you’ve ever seen. I love the opportunity to be a partner with them in this work and really educate our communities and society about all of their talents and abilities. We always say that Special Olympics wouldn’t exist without our athletes’ family members. They are their fiercest cheerleaders, advocates, and amazing people all around.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
A challenge is that not many people know the full scale of what Special Olympics does. A lot of people don’t see themselves as a Special Olympics participant. People assume it’s only for people with disabilities, that they can’t be a part of it. There is additional confusion with the Paralympics. It’s a challenge and an opportunity. Our vision is that everyone gets involved and every single school becomes a more unified school. Ideally, every single person with an intellectual disability who wishes to participate in Special Olympics can do so at no cost to them or their families. We want health services to be trained and accessible for people with disabilities. We want employers to consider hiring someone with disabilities. We really just want everyone to live in a more inclusive way. There has been a lot of talk around diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is important, but rarely does disability enter that conversation and it should.
We also want everyone to see themselves as a member of the Special Olympics community. Virtually all that we do is unified. In our 21 offered sports, there are opportunities for both people with disabilities and unified partners, so everyone can become a part of it through our Unified Champion Schools program. The challenge is that not everyone sees themselves within the Special Olympics family, and that’s something we want to change.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Fundraising is always top of mind to financially support all of our programs and athletes. I love that we’re able to offer very much the same programs as any other organization at no cost to our athletes or their families. They have opportunities to compete in sports, receive health screenings, or participate in athlete leadership programming. We want to make sure that we can continue to do that year-round. We want to get the word out to every single school that they can become a Unified Champion School. There are also challenges in recruiting medical providers who see the value in getting experience working with people with disabilities. Finally, because we work a lot of nights and weekends, we are challenged to retain employees. The nonprofit world is hard, and we want to make sure we retain, recruit, and retain the best staff out there.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
Special Olympics is more than sports, and Special Olympics is for everyone. People think Special Olympics is for kids with disabilities and really don’t know the breadth, depth, and scope of all that we do. There are so many opportunities taking place year-round. Joy is in our mission statement, but I also want people to see us as important, crucial, and relevant. Inclusion for people with disabilities should be at the forefront of all organizations and people’s minds and thoughts. Sports is what we do, but this is a vital organization doing important work.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
I like to say, “Try your best to be nice.” That’s what I tell my kids every day on the way to school. It’s basic but it definitely guides all that I do. It’s as simple as that, which isn’t that simple.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Get involved. We have hundreds of events every year, and we’re a volunteer-driven organization. We have about 40 staff serving 20,000 athletes, which can only be done through the support of our event volunteers and volunteer coaches. If anyone in your family wants to get involved as an athlete, we encourage them to do so, with no experience necessary. We have registration open on our website every season. Go to our website to sign up for any of our events and to check out all the ways you can get involved.
At Orapin, we believe those who are working for the greater good should be known, supported, and celebrated. We help purpose-driven organizations launch or up-level their PR program by giving them the strategy, resources, and support they need to increase awareness and expand their impact. If would like to be featured in INSPIRED IMPACT™, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.