Trump derails cuts to Special Olympics funding as Westmoreland County branch to mark 50th anniversary
Milton Claney remembers standing in the University of Pittsburgh’s stadium in 1968 when a boy ran past holding his bronze medal yelling, “I won! I won! I won!”
At that moment, he realized what Special Olympics was all about.
“I can’t say in 35 years I saw one Special Olympics athlete not give 100 percent,” Claney said. “I can’t think of one. That’s why everyone that gets involved really enjoys it.”
The national nonprofit Olympic-style sporting event for people with special needs was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. One year later, Claney, 77, founded the Westmoreland County branch. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary in May.
This week, the Special Olympics found itself in the spotlight after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before Congress and suggested the organization would not receive funds in 2020 — news that upset Claney and others.
Claney said funds from the federal government help to keep the program running, whether it’s hosting championships worldwide or funding initiatives in schools across the state.
“She needed to research it a little bit more,” Claney said. “She needed to find out exactly how that money was used. There’s a lot of money spent every year on this program here in Westmoreland County.”
During a budget meeting Wednesday, DeVos defended her proposal, saying: “There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
This was the third year DeVos has suggested cutting federal funding for Special Olympics, a figure this time that amounted to $17.6 million. The Department of Education faces an overall budget cut of 10 percent, with an allotment of $64 billion in the record $4.75 trillion proposed 2020 budget President Trump sent Congress this month.
By Thursday evening, Trump said the federal government would continue to fund Special Olympics, adding that he had long supported the organization, The New York Times reported.
Before Trump’s announcement, Nicole Jones, senior director of marketing and communications for the Pennsylvania Special Olympics, said congressional support successfully staved off previous calls to cut funding to the organization.
“We see this as an opportunity to continue raising awareness among government officials and our communities about the important work that Special Olympics is doing,” she told the Tribune-Review.
Claney said that while he was upset by the news, he would have been surprised if Special Olympics was defunded.
“Shriver has created something that is so positive that anything negative is going to be squashed immediately,” Claney said. “And cutting the funds is about as negative as you can get.”
Claney was working as a physical education teacher at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit when he realized his passion for working with people with special needs.
Looking for a job right out of college, and holding a physical education degree, Claney decided to accept a position with the government-created organization — a job he never saw himself in, but held for 35 years.
“I had some hard days, but I never had a bad day,” Claney said. “These kids just appreciate these activities their brothers and sisters were doing in the regular schools.”
And in 1968, Claney had a chance to take his work to the next level.
After reading a newspaper advertisement by Shriver about a Special Olympics event that was looking for participants, Claney decided to recruit three students who were interested in competing.
Soon after that, Shriver connected Claney with other people in the area who were interested in the organization, and together they hosted a joint Olympic-style event at Pitt’s stadium that attracted more than 100 participants and volunteers from local high schools and colleges.
“Other counties started picking up on it,” Claney said. “Pretty soon, we were having a Western Pennsylvania event every year.”
Claney ran the Westmoreland County branch for 20 years, until 1989. But for the 50th anniversary, he is set to speak at the May 4 event at Norwin High School, said Anthony Monstrola, co-manager of the organization.
“It’s incredible,” Monstrola said. “We have a team of 12 members, and I think just all of us are incredibly honored and excited.”
The event draws over 200 athletes, Monstrola said. They compete in events such as swimming, bowling, basketball, cycling and more.
Winners from the local event move on to a regional competition at Carnegie Mellon University. After that, a statewide competition will be held at Penn State University. Special Olympics hosts events every summer and winter.
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .