by Gloria Welton
Special Olympics PEI has for many years worked with people with intellectual disabilities through leadership training, health supports, and sport.
“We have experienced that when we support athletes beyond their sporting activities, it benefits them personally, and supports their performance on the field of play as well,” says Charity Sheehan, Executive Director.
Health and Wellness management has always been a focus for this organization, and it became even more so when the pandemic started. “COVID-19 has changed many levels of athletic training and competition. We continued the training virtually, and now we are gradually building back to our participation in-person.
“Special Olympics International had to delay the 2021 winter games until 2023. We have held some local competitions and we are looking at maritime competitions in 2022.”
Program Director Matthew McNally has been with the organization for seven years. “There are many aspects to our Health and Wellness project. One service we offer is free health events Island wide.
“The health events are directed by health professionals in the community who are willing to provide their expertise to athletes and others with intellectual disabilities in our communities.”
Matthew says the events are customized to meet the athletes’ needs and give the professionals an opportunity to work with the athletes and gain expertise in communicating effectively.
The most recent partnership was with Sports Centre Physiotherapy Clinic in Charlottetown. Special Olympics International provided clinical director training to Physiotherapist Haley MacDonald, who led the event
“Six health-related professionals are now trained in six of the eight health focus areas. Athletes walk away with helpful information as they train for their sport, and they could also get follow-up visits if they need further health support.”
Another aspect of the Health and Wellness project is to empower and equip athletes with skills to become health advocates in their community. “Five athletes have completed Health Messengers training,” says Matthew.
“After the training, they are asked to do two presentations or projects and events each year they are active. The messengers inspire and empower other athletes to develop healthy lifestyles, lead their own healthier life, and bring awareness to health and wellness services in their community.”
Janet Charchuk explains her role as a Health Messenger
Janet believes in being an active community member and in living a healthy life. “I work with children part-time with the pre-kindergarten program at Kids West in Alberton. I also help out with the horses and animals at Grand River Ranch, and I go riding from time to time.”
She also has been a motivational speaker and advocate for people with disabilities for many years and works closely with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society.
For the Health Messenger program, Janet and her mentor, who is her mom Jackie, first took a course online. After the training, it was challenging to plan events due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, Janet was determined to do her best. “I led a warm-up session and gave health tips to a group of athletes. Also, I was able to talk with the students in the Human Services program at Holland College in Alberton in person.”
Janet is participating in a research project coordinated through the Canadian Down Syndrome Society in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom. They launched a first-of-its-kind scientific research study to examine the link between exercise and cognition for people with Down Syndrome. Janet does physical exercises, mental exercises, and brain games, and the data is used for the study.
Through the International Disabilities Alliance, she took part in making a plain language survey to address the needs people with all abilities have for a healthy life. “This survey will be used worldwide and will be available soon,” says Janet.
She is also the Canadian representative for Down Syndrome International. “We have webinars and videos to help support people with challenges and to take part in groups. We have monthly calls and other projects.”
Janet says it is very important to be active and healthy for everyday life. “Exercise is important for everyone.” Janet has competed at Special Olympics events, including golf, bocce, 5-pin bowling, and snowshoe.
Need for a family doctor and best ways to interact
It is important for the athletes to be screened for health issues, especially if they do not have a family doctor. “I was screened for bone density, and I was red flagged. I was referred to a specialist and treatment was recommended. I want to encourage others to go for help for health needs such as dental, eyesight and more.”
Janet stressed the need for all people with disabilities to have a family doctor. “I heard athletes talk about the need to have a family doctor and want to make that point known.
“Health professionals dealing with people with disabilities should be using plain language and visuals, if possible, to help communicate to others. To make the person feel comfortable, it is better for the health professional to ask the questions directly to the patient, and not to the caregiver, mentor, or parent they come in with. Take time with people and be patient!”
For more information about the importance of health screening sessions, watch this video of Janet Charchuk talking about each step in the process, click here
For more about Special Olympics PEI, call 1-800-287-1196.