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Campus Life and Campus Services partner to support Special Olympics at Emory

May 23, 2017

By John Baker Brown, Emory Campus Life

Special Olympics Georgia (SOGA) arrived on the Emory Campus the weekend of May 19-21 for its summer games, as it does about his time every year, bringing 3,000 guests and a unique, exciting, and herculean undertaking for the university community.

SOGA is Emory’s first and by far largest event each summer season, which sees approximately 60 outside organizations and an estimated 7,000 visitors hosted on campus between May and August. 

Support for SOGA is shared by several Campus Life units, including Housing Operations, Dining Services, and Athletics. But the partnership is even larger. As Campus Life staff point out, Campus Services shoulders a lion’s share of responsibility for making the weekend the great success it has been since Emory began hosting the event in 1988.

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Moira Sullivan, hall director and conference fellow in Conference Services, is the Special Olympics lead for Housing. She and her counterparts in other Emory organizations meet with SOGA representatives during the year to work out annual contracts and coordinate a dizzying array of details, such as parking reservations, shuttle transportation, and lodging.

“SOGA is a really well-oiled machine run by people absolutely committed to making this a great weekend for their participants,” she says. “I love working with them.”

During the games, approximately 1,800 people – Special Olympians, coaches, and families – occupy almost every residence room on the main campus. This is one of many areas in which the Campus Life and Campus Services partnership pays dividends. Hundreds of rooms must be cleaned, repaired, and inspected – and every bed in every room must be lowered to ensure accessibility for Olympians. Campus Services manages this huge task.

Facilities supervisor Mark Kimbrough joined Campus Services 32 years ago and has worked with Special Olympics nearly all that time. Eventually, he assumed the lead role, closely coordinating his facilities responsibilities with other Campus Services units, such as the Emory Police Department, which provides security and crowd and traffic control, and Transportation and Parking Services, which manages parking facilities and shuttle buses.

During the Special Olympics Games, Kimbrough and his team are available around the clock – staging hundreds of tables and thousands of chairs at scores of venues, cleaning, picking up trash and recycling, and much more.

“Our Campus Services team comes up with the most creative solutions to make sure our guests have a great time,” Kimbrough says, recalling numerous unpredictable developments over the years. Challenges have ranged from fixing a motorized electric wheelchair to jumpstarting a passenger bus to repairing a dysfunctional elevator in one of the residence halls within hours to ensure Olympians could get to their competitions on time.

“If you are a visitor to campus and you never think about what Campus Services does,” says Kimbrough, “then we have done our job.”

Chad Sunstein, director of Emory Dining, a unit of Campus Life, embraces a similar philosophy of customer service. His organization works year-round to ensure that mealtime is a fun time for Emory students, staff, faculty, and guests.

“We accomplish that goal by partnering with Bon Appétit, our food-service management company, to provide the best food and the most enjoyable mealtime experience every time a diner eats at one of our venues during the summer and throughout the school year,” says Sunstein. “We are delighted every May to welcome our Special Olympics guests back to our campus and dining facilities.”

According to Kimberly Triplett, Bon Appétit’s operations director, much of the food for the Special Olympics is donated by SOGA supporters, with Emory supplementing as needed from university-approved vendors. Triplett’s team then prepares the meals and helps SOGA volunteers serve them.

“About 5,000 meals are prepared and served over the Special Olympics weekend,” says Triplett, noting that SOGA was the first organization to enjoy Emory’s interim dining facility. It replaces Dobbs Market in the Dobbs University Center (DUC), which will be demolished this summer to make room for construction of the university’s new Campus Life Center. Nicknamed the “DUC-ling” by Emory students, the interim facility will be the university’s primary dining venue during the two years of new construction. 

“The DUC-ling is an attractive, state-of-the-art, restaurant-style facility that enhances service efficiency and – most important – the dining experiences of our guests,” says Triplett. “We were very excited about hosting our Special Olympics visitors as our very first guests.”

Of course, as much as SOGA guests enjoy their meals and housing, Special Olympians come to Emory primarily for athletic competition in an array of sports. And that could not happen without the full engagement of Emory Athletics, another unit of Campus Life.

In 2010, when Meg Ahrens, assistant director of athletics for external operations, first took on the assignment as her department’s lead for SOGA, she found the scope of the job intimidating. 

“But then I realized what a campus-wide team effort it is,” Ahrens says. “Athletics, like the other Emory units, is 100 percent all-in to ensure that our Special Olympics athletes and guests have the most memorable experience possible.”

Athletics venues and equipment are critical, of course, with more than a dozen competitions ranging from table tennis and volleyball to gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. Additional venues are required for opening and closing ceremonies and the Olympics Town featuring booths hosted by SOGA sponsors.

In addition to the ongoing partnership between their two organizations, Campus Services and Campus Life staff working with SOGA seem to share a unique enjoyment and satisfaction in their various roles and regard the Special Olympics as something truly special.

“It’s a huge and hugely gratifying event that takes a lot of campus collaboration and support to be successful,” Ahrens says.

“The athletes infect us all with their energy and joy, and we have so much fun over those three days,” Sullivan adds. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Mary Clements, Campus Services chief of staff, shares the sentiment. “I’ve seen athletes offer hugs to our custodial staff members and others,” she says. “And every day that our Special Olympics guests are visiting our campus is a bright day for everyone.”

Learn more about Special Olympics Georgia at http://www.specialolympicsga.org/ 

Photo credit: Tina Chang, Emory Campus Life