Social Distancing Doesn’t Feel Good. We Know.

By Stacey Hengsterman, President & CEO of Special Olympics New York

“Social distancing” is an activity that we all now practice. We have learned the hard way what this unexpected directive actually means, and most of us aren’t taking it very well. We are stressed. We are irritable. We can’t put our phones down. We can’t go to the gym when we want. We can’t go out to eat with our friends. We can’t play in our school tournaments or perform in our plays. We can’t go to work.

Social distancing is feeling a lot like social isolation, and that’s something Special Olympics knows all about. Addressing social isolation and the very real, very negative effects it has on people is at the core of our mission. People with intellectual differences do not have as many opportunities for social activities as do their non-disabled peers.

I know this as the CEO of our organization and as the mother of a child with an intellectual difference. I have fought the battle against social isolation on behalf of my son, Alex, his whole life, well before COVID-19 showed up. It isn’t something I love to acknowledge, because it’s hard to say that my son suffers from loneliness. Every day, he asks me if I can call this friend or that friend to see if they can come over to play. My other children don’t have to ask. They contact their friends through text, TikTok, Facetime, and Instagram. They get on their bike or in their car and go.

For many of our athletes, their social isolation just got a whole lot worse. I give thanks every day that Alex lives at home with our family of five. But many of our athletes live in group homes away from their families, and now even away from visitors.

What Alex does have, and what thousands of New Yorkers like him also have, is Special Olympics. For our athletes, Special Olympics programs offer an escape – often the only escape – from feeling isolated.

This is part of our mission and over 50 years, Special Olympics New York has become quite good at it. With the support of our partners and donors, we give athletes like my Alex a chance to leave isolation behind by participating is sports and socializing with their peers in a welcoming, celebratory, competitive environment.

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Up until two weeks ago, Alex was going to powerlifting practice three days a week. He was just finishing up his Unified Bowling games with his school team. Our family experienced first-hand how Special Olympics knocks down the barriers of social isolation.

But during this time of mandated “social distancing” because of a virus that is particularly threatening to the people we serve, we find ourselves unable to help in the way that we want… in the ways our athletes need… at a time when we want so much to do precisely that. While others may be missing out on their many daily social and recreational interactions, many of our athletes are missing out on their ONLY social and wellness activity: us.

I can’t help but worry, as a mom and as a CEO, that an extended period of time apart will set us back, and my team at Special Olympics New York is going to do everything we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Special Olympics movement is too important, too powerful.

So during this time of mandated social distancing, I ask of you three things:

Join us.

Special Olympics New York is committed to finding innovative ways to support our athletes even when we can’t be with them physically during this crisis. We are turning to virtual programming and outreach. We promise to keep doing our job, and will continue to find ways for you to get involved. Join our #Fit5NY group and follow us on social media for ongoing opportunities.

Reach out to someone who needs you. 

Call a parent who has a child with special needs. FaceTime an athlete. Send a card. Find a way to connect. They are missing you, so let them know you are there. If you want to make a new connection, message me and I’ll introduce you.

Stick with us.  

When life goes back to normal for you, and it will, keep our athletes in your hearts and minds. Make a permanent commitment to connect with people who battle social isolation in whatever way you can. And please, keep supporting organizations like Special Olympics New York that work every day to close the social distance between our athletes and communities.


To make a monetary donation to Special Olympics New York, volunteer your time, or learn more about programming in your community, visit www.specialolympicsNY.org.