Peace Corps Partners with Special Olympics
The Daily Tribune
By Jerry Wolffe
August 3, 2011
The Peace Corps and its 8,655 volunteers in 76 countries have started working to improve the lives of people with disabilities worldwide.
Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams of Chicago said his organization, founded in 1961, signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver in a ceremony at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“We enter this exciting new partnership in honor of Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics,” Williams said in a statement.
“The Peace Corps and Special Olympics are global organizations that empower communities and provide experiences that improve and enhance the lives of others.”
Peace Corps Public Affairs Specialist Christine Torres said the Peace Corps is focusing on disability issues by “breaking down the stereotypes and helping the disadvantaged and disabled improve their lives.”
She noted the case of Sarah Hollemans, 25, who is in Tangiers, Morocco, and helped establish Special Olympics in the African continent. Hollemans, who has several relatives in Oakland County, arrived in Morocco as a Peace Corps worker in September 2009 and her 27-month commitment ends in November.
Hollemans’ brother, Mark, 26, was born with cerebral palsy, a fact which led her toward helping the disabled in Morocco, a nation where people who have children with disabilities often consider themselves to be cursed, she said.
Disability rights advocate Richard Bernstein was excited in a recent visit to Morocco to acknowledge the progress being made in the Third World country to bring those with disabilities out of the shadows and into the mainstream of life. He has also visited Ecuador and Israel to champion the rights of the disabled.
“The Peace Corps addresses so many aspects of life within the developing world it is essential that emphasis be placed on the rights and needs of people with disabilities in Third World nations,” said Bernstein, who is blind and an attorney who lives in Birmingham.
“We are happy to see the work that Hollemans is doing and the formal relationship between the Peace Corps and Special Olympics,” he said. “We have to take Hollemans’ example to inspire the Peace Corps to further develop programs and services for people with disabilities in the Third World.
“If this succeeds, it could put an end to the practice in rural areas that people with disabilities are viewed by society as being cursed and punishment for their parents’ wrongdoings,” Bernstein said.
The first Special Olympics event in Morocco was on May 25 in Tangier.
“Working with Special Olympics was fantastic,” Hollemans said in an email. “The more than 250 athletes who participated in the games were excited about being a part of the event and partaking in festivities.
“Everywhere you looked you saw smiling faces,” she said.
Besides Hollemans, a Grand Rapids native, some 30 Peace Corps volunteers helped during the event.
“I felt a renewed sense of accomplishment after spending the day with the athletes,” Hollemans said.
These people face challenges on a daily basis, but during the games they excel at their events and are sincerely grateful for the Peace Corps volunteers’ presence and encouragement, she said.
Williams, based in Washington, D.C., and appointed to his post in August 2009 by President Barack Obama, said the agreement between the Peace Corps and Special Olympics is a way to “promote peace, friendship, acceptance (of the disabled), and mutual understanding.”
Peace Corps volunteers around the world are going to help in planning, organizing and mobilizing communities in support of Special Olympics programs that focus on education, youth development, civil rights for the disabled and community engagement, he said.
“We are in a world where there are attitudes of mass destruction and the Peace Corps has a way of curing attitudes of fear through their volunteers,” Williams said in a statement.
“We look forward to the Peace Corps taking on a new challenge to work with children with disabilities throughout the world in a targeted way to help the most neglected population on earth.”