Champion competitors and dedicated volunteers

A network of 15,000 volunteers, 11,000 athletes, 99 Iowa counties and 44 years all add up to one thing: the Special Olympics of Iowa (SOIA). Come May 17 through 19, all of these variables will be present at the 2012 Summer Games in Ames.

Bryan Coffey
Working with SOIA led UNI student Bryan Coffey to major in social work.

The Special Olympics is an international non-profit organization, which encourages both children and adults with intellectual disabilities to compete in summer and winter versions of the games. Participation for athletes is free and further promoted through the organization's motto, "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Director of Sports and Competition, Rhonda Schwarzkopf, has been working with SOIA since 1998 and has held many positions within the organization. Schwarzkopf finds joy in watching the athletes practice, train and compete. "Everyone who competes in Special Olympics receives an award.  We strive for fair and equitable play.  We want all our athletes to excel, do well and have an opportunity to win."

Both students and faculty highlight the University of Northern Iowa's involvement in SOIA. Senior transfer student and social work major, Bryan Coffey has worked with SOIA for seven years. His life goals and involvement with the Special Olympics led Coffey to his major. As a Boy Scout, Coffey was introduced to a member of his troop with autism. This connection caused Coffey to realize his desire to work with at-risk youth and those with intellectual disabilities. "I want to be in a position to encourage other people and I want others to benefit from the work I'm doing," said Coffey. He believes his social work major will give him this opportunity.

"I want to be in a position to encourage
other people and I want others to
benefit from the work I'm doing."


- Bryan Coffey, UNI senior 

Coffey's volunteer work with SOIA has ranged from event planning and organization to fundraising and media relations. He furthered his involvement by becoming an intern with the organization. "Now that I'm an intern with SOIA I've had many more opportunities to do things that I hadn’t yet done," said Coffey. "I've been a part of SOIA’s 2012 Winter Games, Midwinter Tournament, Young Athletes Play Activity Days, Challenge Days and I even led SOIA’s Ames Polar Plunge, which turned out to be the biggest Polar Plunge ever for SOIA, raising more than $92,000." The money raised by Coffey, and many others, funds different aspects of the Special Olympics, including housing, health screenings, transportation and basic living costs.

Coffey isn't UNI's only representative at the SOIA. Joe Wilson, associate professor of health, physical education, and leisure services at UNI, has volunteered with the organization for 44 years. Wilson has served as the Northeast Iowa area director since 1986 and noted the important role UNI students play for SOIA. "We generally have several hundred UNI volunteers help with our area events every school year. " With such a large number of athletes participating, the need for volunteers is evident.

Individuals interested in volunteering for the summer event may fill out an application at