Interview with Rebecca Thompson, General Counsel for Special Olympics

The Special Olympics is a well-known organization, but how much do you really know about the services and programs they provide? Rebecca Thompson, General Counsel for Special Olympics Northern California, answers this question and also provides us with an opportunity to get involved with their amazing program and services.

What is Special Olympics Northern California?

Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities through sports, education and athlete health. Headquartered in Pleasant Hill, we operate both the Special Olympics Northern California and Special Olympics Nevada programs, offering free year-round training and competition for over 24,500 athletes who compete annually in more than 270 competitions in 14 sports. We also are increasing our presence in schools through our Schools Partnership Program, to promote inclusion at an early age; and are committed to improving the overall health and well-being of individuals with intellectual disabilities through Healthy Athletes events, offering screenings and services free of charge.

What are your primary responsibilities as General Counsel for SONC?

My responsibilities are largely like those of other in-house counsel. I create and review all contracts, covering everything from vendor agreements to facility rentals for special events and year-round practices and competitions to agreements with school districts and other partners. I also oversee risk management for our athletes, volunteers and staff; ensure government compliance in both states; assist our Board of Directors; and manage human resources.

The biggest difference for me between working with SONC and my early years in private practice is that, at the end of the day, my current work supports a program which enables children and adults with intellectual disabilities to break barriers and connect with others through sports. It’s extremely rewarding.

Who does SONC serve?

SONC serves children and adults with intellectual disabilities across Northern California and Nevada, including 21,250 in Northern California alone. An intellectual disability limits cognitive functioning and skills. Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Fragile X Syndrome are a few of the most common conditions that cause intellectual disabilities, which are estimated to affect more than 200 million people in the world.

We offer our program to qualified individuals beginning at age two, with our Young Athletes introductory program at schools. In the community-based program, athletes can start training at age seven and competing at age eight. While a majority of our athletes are youth, 31 percent are adults 22 and older.

Does SONC offer community sports? If so, what sports and is it competitive or for leisure/training?

We offer year-round community training and competition in 14 different sports, differing by county. Our full list of sports includes basketball, bocce, bowling, flag football, floor hockey, golf, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field and volleyball, with cross county and alpine skiing available in Fresno County alone.

SONC competitions are designed for athletes of all ability levels. We have athletes who compete at a varsity-level and higher, and others who just enjoy being active with their peers. All of our competitions recognize results, and medals are awarded in gold, silver and bronze, with participation ribbons also distributed. A select few of our athletes earn the chance to compete at the national level at the Special Olympics USA Games and even on the world stage at the Special Olympics World Games. For all of our athletes, every competition begins with the recitation of the Special Olympics Athlete’s Oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Does SONC offer training or competitions in Contra Costa County? If so, in what sports?

SONC offers both training and competition in 11 sports on community-based teams throughout Contra Costa County: basketball, bocce, bowling, floor hockey, golf, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. Athletes train for at least six weeks with our coaches, on a seasonal calendar; details can be found at https://www.sonc.org/programs/community-sports-programs/county/contra-costa.

Contra Costa County public schools also participate in the Schools Partnership Program, with students in all grades eligible to train and compete in soccer (fall), basketball (winter), and track and field (spring). See https://www.sonc.org/school/contra-costa-schools-partnership-program for more information.

What does the SONC school program entail?

SONC now has a presence in more than 500 schools, through our Schools Partnership Program. Originally the program provided Special Olympics-style training and competition to supplement the more limited adaptive PE curriculum then available to students receiving special education services. The program has expanded to now also include general education students at participating schools, with a focus on social inclusion. Our Special Olympics Unified Sports program combines students with and without intellectual disabilities as teammates on the same school teams; we also help school staff and student leadership promote interaction and understanding through inclusive student clubs and schoolwide initiatives such as our “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, designed to stop the pejorative use of the term “retard[ed].”

Does SONC have fundraisers?

SONC hosts numerous fundraisers throughout the year and we have one coming up, soon, that’s a great opportunity for local law firms to get involved. The 4th Annual Tri-Valley Bocce Bash will feature a night full of food, fun and bocce on Thursday, October 5, at Campo di Bocce in Livermore. Along with power players from Silicon Valley serving as event and bocce team sponsors, we’re also expecting leadership from local school districts, law enforcement and community groups to be in attendance. It’s a great way to network, enjoy great food and drinks, and earn bragging rights for your law firm team. I promise to personally cheer on any law firm team competing! Two SONC athlete teams will also participate and there will be a silent auction, awards and much more. Teams of four can participate for $500; there are also options for single player and dinner-only tickets available. You can learn more and register at https://www.sonc.org/trivalleybocce.

Our largest fundraising event series is the annual Polar Plunge, which challenges individuals to raise money for our program by taking a winter jump into a body of water. In 2017, we hosted 10 Polar Plunge events throughout both states, including in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Sacramento. I’m proud to say that I braved the cold and took the ocean plunge in Santa Cruz this year!

We are also very grateful to have amazing support from the law enforcement agencies throughout our region, with many officers dedicating their time and resources to SONC. Law enforcement hosts fundraising events throughout the year, supports our athletes at competitions, and works to raise community awareness of the population we serve.

How can someone get more information about fundraising events with SONC?

All of our upcoming events are posted online at https://www.sonc.org/fundraising-events. Events are also regularly updated on our Facebook and Twitter pages @SONorCal and through the monthly newsletter, which can be subscribed to online at https://www.sonc.org.

What kind of volunteering opportunities are available with SONC?

We rely on the support of more than 24,000 volunteers across Northern California and Nevada, including 20,490 volunteers here in Northern California. Opportunities include coaching, single day support at competitions and fundraisers, and office assistance. No experience is necessary to help out!

How can someone get more information about volunteering with SONC?

Anyone interested can visit www.VolunteerforSONC.org for more information or contact Belinda Sullivan at belindas@sonc.org.

Filed Under: Pro BonoSpotlight

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