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Mettle for Medals: Special Olympics Oregon Strives to Revive the Games

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Special Olympics Team Members at Little Creek Ranch in Ashland. Photo by Noah Lee Margetts

After sinking under a sea of debt with $2.1 million in negative assets just 11 months ago, Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR) is resurfacing to once again sail on the seas of financial solvency.

Thus beginning a “new era of Special Olympics Oregon,” according to Britt Carlson Oase, who was hired in June 2018 to end the now tenuous tenure of CEO Margaret Hunt.

Oase gives us the broad strokes, “Year over year, events and fundraising just were not keeping up with the rising costs of delivering our mission. I can’t speak to decisions that were made. I can only tell you when I arrived, it was not a model that we could continue.”

Signs of trouble were there for special athletes on the ground years before percolating up to the board. Debbie Hansen-Bernard, mother to Special Olympian, Josh Hansen, laments the struggle, “Sometimes because there were not enough funds, we would stay in motels and sometimes we’d have to, wherever the events were being held, we would have to sleep on the gym floor and that was horrible because kids that had seizures, their seizures happened more and you’re not in a comfortable facility. It just wasn’t adequate.”

Where were the good stewards? Running up a $1 million line of credit. According to auditors statements, all debt was unserviceable by June 2018. Although the auditors absolved any SOOR staff of using charity money for “personal expenditures,” they still expressed concerns on how much loyalty CEO Hunt gave to her duties at SOOR in her final years and whether that suggested malfeasance. SOOR does not have the authority to compel those involved to answer any of their questions and has expressed little appetite for spending money and valuable rebuilding time investigating and has turned it all over to the Oregon DOJ.

Back to the boots on the ground: Athletes and their supporters were seeing less and less assistance from their parent organization. “We had to suspend our mission delivery and address some gut issues,” says Oase. Meaning all local events now had to be no-cost, underwritten or locally funded. The past five Special Olympics seasons in Oregon have been cancelled, but with an announcement in the coming weeks for a possible return this year.

Hansen-Bernard recounts the decline in services, “I began to notice them canceling events I would say the last five years. They used to have awards ceremonies, dances, dinners.”  

As the owner of the Little Creek Ranch in Ashland, Hansen-Bernard wrangled together her own end-of-season team party, complete with equine therapy for the athletes. “That’s why we had the party here. We had a great place for everybody to wander, experience the horses, be able to socialize with each other, and they had fun.”

With disenfranchisement setting in, the new board took it to the people. Giving seven cities throughout the state an opportunity to engage, participate and gain a sense of agency in the process. Full financial transparency became the new paradigm. As a result, each locale is now financially autonomous and will have more dominion over the start and end dates of their seasons and what sports they would like to play. Instead of going into a state-wide pot, local money goes to local causes, with SOOR taking a maximum 50 percent. This year’s Polar Plunge sent $25 from each entrant’s fee to the program where that athlete lived.

“We’re taking a measured approach to how we return. We just need the fundraising model to be able to support that.” CEO Oase continues, “The Special Olympics model involves 30 logo-programs in Oregon that are volunteer run. That is all privately funded through philanthropy, corporate sponsorships, fundraising efforts, etc.”

Oase had taken on quite a challenge: How to take a nonprofit charity, completely dependent on the altruistic donations of others, out of millions of dollars in debt while still providing the necessary help, support and assistance to some of our most vulnerable, yet resilient citizens.

Help soon arrived with University of Oregon President, Ed Ray as the new board head. Former Oregon Governor, the Hon. Barbara Roberts, took financial control alongside Mike Golub, President of Business for the MLS Portland Timbers and Thorns.

The Oregon Philanthropic Commission set out a debt restructuring process and a fundraising model, and the charity renegotiated its $1,000,000 line of credit, receiving a half-million dollar forgiveness and very favorable terms moving forward. Additionally, $1.5 million has been raised from private philanthropy establishing an “operational runway” for getting the state-wide program to become fully functional.

Next up was the Atlas-sized fixed-overhead costs—and have tightened their belts by halving their staff, moved into donated offices, and eliminating “mission delivery” costs through July 2019.  Throughout the process, SOOR has continued to provide back-end administrative support to Oregon’s volunteer-run programs; performing background checks for CLASS A coaches, maintaining insurance, storing necessary athletic equipment.

An estimated 65,000 students are directly affected by the Special Olympics programs in Oregon alone, with 8,000 volunteers and 14,000 athletes participating annually.


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