Meredith Tassey Verrill had just returned from watching a game between the Scarborough and Bonny Eagle middle school Unified basketball teams when she learned that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had proposed eliminating all federal funds for Special Olympics.

“I was kind of elated, posting pictures of the game, excited to share them with the Scarborough community,” said Verrill, who lives in Scarborough and is Bonny Eagle’s Special Olympics coach. “Then I saw that news and I just got a sick feeling in my stomach because I knew what it meant to Unified sports.”

Verrill is among the many people around the nation who are shocked by the proposal to eliminate federal funding for Special Olympics. In Maine, federal grants targeted for Special Olympics Maine go entirely to schools to provide funding for Unified sports and educational programs that allow students with intellectual disabilities to participate in activities with “partner” students without intellectual disabilities.

About 8 percent of Special Olympics Maine’s annual budget, which is currently $1.4 million, comes from federal grants distributed by Special Olympics Inc. In 2016, Special Olympics Maine received $114,308 in government funding, according to its Form 990 tax filing.

“These proposed cuts would only affect our Unified Championship schools because those are funded by the Department of Education,” said Lisa Bird, the public relations director for Special Olympics Maine. “It is certainly something we would hate to lose. Unified Champion schools are growing like crazy here in the state of Maine and changing cultures in the entire school community.”

Currently, 107 schools in Maine have Special Olympics-designed Unified programs. Many were aided by initial startup funding provided through the federal grants. About 70 percent of the Unified programs are now self-funded. The athletic programs are the most visible. For example, both Bonny Eagle and Scarborough received $2,000 from Special Olympics Maine to support their middle school teams this year, Verrill said.

Bird said 2,500 to 3,000 students are involved in Unified sports. Unified basketball, which is co-sponsored by the Maine Principals’ Association, has grown from 17 to 53 high school teams (representing 59 schools) since 2015.

“Then when you look at the students who just go to the games to support them; and schools that participate in other (unified) programs, you’re reaching tens of thousands of students in Maine,” Bird said. “It’s a really important program. We don’t want to see any cuts come to it. It’s changing relationships and everyday lives.”

“There are so many positive things that are provided by Special Olympics, their general programming as well as the Unified programming,” said Michael Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. “It would be very unfortunate for funding for any of those programs to be eliminated.”

Madison Area Memorial High School’s Scott Sawtelle keeps the ball from going into the backcourt in the Unified basketball championship game against Westbrook High School earlier this month. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The proposed elimination of $17.6 million in Special Olympics funding is part of $7 billion in education cuts outlined by the Department of Education, with many of the proposed cuts targeting services for students with disabilities.

The four members of Maine’s congressional delegation were unanimous in their support for maintaining Special Olympics funding.

“The Special Olympics are the best of us: communities coming together to support people with intellectual disabilities. Anybody who feels this isn’t a priority worth supporting in the federal budget has a different view of America than I do,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent. “If there’s one bright spot in this awful proposal, it’s that I can’t imagine Congress will support these cuts.”

Sen. Susan Collins sees Special Olympics as a bipartisan issue.

“There is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the Special Olympics and its mission to empower children and adults with intellectual disabilities,” said Collins, a Republican.

Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat in his first term representing Maine’s 2nd District, said Special Olympics provides crucial programs.

“For Mainers with intellectual disabilities, their families, educators, and volunteers, Special Olympics and special education programs are irreplaceable,” Golden said.

And Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, put the White House on notice that DeVos’ proposal will meet stiff resistance

“The Trump administration is sorely mistaken if they think Americans will stand for these outrageous budget cuts to the Special Olympics,” Pingree said.

Special Olympics has a global revenue of $429 million, according to a Washington Post story, which includes significant corporate contributions and other philanthropic gifts. But in Maine, there are no major corporate sponsors. Fundraising for this year’s $1.4 million budget is a labor-intensive grassroots process, said Phil Geelhold, the president and CEO of Special Olympics Maine.

“There’s a thought out there that Special Olympics will be fine because Coca-Cola and Bank of America and these other big worldwide corporations support them,” Geelhold said. “Unfortunately those types of support are for the international office and doesn’t trickle down to us.”

Special Olympics Maine runs 75 competitive events annually, highlighted by its annual Winter and Summer Games. The organization’s traditional program offerings would not be affected by a federal budget cut. But losing any momentum with the growth of Unified activities would have a major impact, Verrill said.

“This is the piece that’s starting the real conversations about how it’s impacting kids in school,” Verrill said.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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