By Deborah DuBoff
There are moments that we have as expats in Ecuador when we profoundly realize the abundance that we came from and we are inspired to donate time or money or share the skills and knowledge that we came here with. Johanna and Chris Nervick came to Cotacachi, Ecuador from the U.S. for retirement with the goal of learning more about Ecuador and enjoying life.
As they began to integrate into the Andean community of Cotacachi they met a young girl with Down’s Syndrome and from that rewarding relationship they have followed their hearts to helping more children and young adults with disabilities.
They started by helping just a few families they met in town but soon realized that there was a much greater need. They learned that children with special needs in Cotacachi, as in many places in Ecuador, are offered very limited assistance. There are no special learning programs for them. If they attend school they are primarily observers. Most of the families in Cotacachi have very few financial resources. Their families are further limited because one parent must remain at home to care for the child.
Johanna and Chris wanted to do more. Working with children with intellectual and physical disabilities was second nature to Johanna and Chris. Johanna had a career in Special Education in the U.S. and Chris had volunteered with Special Olympics as a police officer. So, they knew there are profound benefits to having these activities. Motivated by the overwhelming need of the children in the community they committed themselves to starting a Special Olympics Club in Cotacachi. Throughout the legal process they had invaluable help from Oswaldo Rueda and Vladimir Hnatyuk. With perseverance they fulfilled the legal requirements to be recognized as a Club in 2017 and in 2019 they completed the documentation to be designated as an International Foundation in Ecuador.
Members of the Cotacachi community and international contributions from Go Fund Me helped to financially support the establishment of the Club and its ongoing activities. Funds help provide sports equipment, uniforms, shoes, and travel expenses. The Club has no paid staff.
The commitment to keeping the athletes engaged has created a life changing community for the athletes, their families and the volunteers. Johanna and Chris say that they have been very fortunate to have had many local people who were involved in the beginning and are taking an active role. Vladimir Hnatyuk and the Proaño family in Cotacachi have been very supportive and involved with financial and volunteer time. Committed volunteers such as Bobby and Becca Vines, Jennifer Volpe, Chuck and Susan Bussey, Marcos Pazmino, Faye Thomas, and Lindsay Numendahl help with practice three times a week. Other community volunteers have also been important participants.
2019 is the 50th Anniversary of Special Olympics which was founded through the efforts of President John F. Kennedy’s sister Eunice Shriver and others.
“The Special Olympics movement has grown to more than six million athletes and Unified Sports partners in more than 190 countries. With the support of more than one million coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics delivers 32 Olympic-type sports and over 100,000 games and competitions throughout the year,” according to the Special Olympics website)
Figures published in 2015 show there were 28,128 athletes and unified partners registered in Special Olympics in Ecuador. The Cotacachi Special Olympics Club currently has 25 members, ages 6 to 24.
In Ecuador, the concept of inclusion and unified teams (teams of athletes with and without disabilities) is starting to gain more attention through the efforts of clubs like the Special Olympics Club in Cotacachi. The Cotacachi Special Olympics Sports Club fully embraces the spirit of the mission and is proud to be one of the active groups competing in Ecuador. The team is open to anyone with intellectual disabilities, autism, Down’s Syndrome, or physical disabilities. They currently have an athletics team, unified basketball, unified soccer, unified swimming, unified gymnastics and they even have a unified cheer team!
How is the Cotacachi Special Olympics Club enhancing and empowering lives?
Most of the Special Olympics teams in Ecuador are affiliated with public schools that have specialized education for children with intellectual disabilities. In smaller communities, like Cotacachi, the children attend public schools with no dedicated programs for instruction or programs. The Special Olympics Club provides the children with individual attention and instruction to help develop self-esteem and learn skills to better integrate into their local communities. The children have also shown improvement in their participation in their school classrooms as well as demonstrating overall positive changes in mood and behaviors.
The Club was invited to the Manta Special Olympics Event in November of 2017 where they won 6 medals! For most of the athletes it was their first visit to the ocean and their first trip with a group other than family. They have also participated in several unified sporting events locally and in Quito including basketball, soccer, and Gymnastics in Ibarra.
Building extended community
Having family, friends, and children from the local neighborhood involved as volunteers and part of a unified team has also helped to remove the sense of isolation and exclusion that was prevalent. Importantly, it has also helped the parents of the children develop more confidence in their ability to advocate for their children and ask for more services that are needed.
Johanna and Chris and the volunteers are committed to helping the families become more self-sufficient so that they can carry on with the Club whether the founders are present or not. They believe that the local team not only helps families advocate for their children but it has brought families together to form local support groups so they don’t feel so isolated in their communities.
Johanna and Chris say they can’t imagine not having the children as part of their lives and they have found that they have received more than they have given.
Are you inspired to help?
If you would like to volunteer to help the Cotacachi Club you can contact Johanna at: email@example.com
Among other ways to help are:
Cotacachi Special Olympics Club Facebook Page (See the PayPal donation button and they have an account in Banco Guayaquil).
Not really the athletic type? Ways of contributing and volunteering can vary from helping with practices to arranging special outings or learning experiences for those with disabilities like cooking classes, how to shop in the market, how to handle money, etc.
Perhaps you can get involved in your local community in Ecuador by starting a local team.
To find out more about Special Olympics in Ecuador, go to Special Olympics Ecuador
Special Olympics Office in Quito
Calle Berlin 158 y Av. 9 de Octubre
Edificio Windsor 1er
Tel. 593 9 346 1547