Figuratively speaking, Niagara University carries the torch for individuals with developmental disabilities through its many outreach services and academic programs.
The institution's president, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., will do so in the literal sense when he gets a local leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics underway this Monday afternoon.
Maher will depart Goat Island at noon with the symbolic "Flame of Hope," trekking six miles in tandem with local law enforcement personnel and Special Olympians en route to Niagara University's Kiernan Center.
The runners are expected to arrive with the torch on campus shortly after 1 p.m.
A Special Olympics spokesperson said Maher will become the first university president in the Western Region to participate in the Law Enforcement Torch Run.
"We are honored to play such a visible role in an initiative that advances the wherewithal of the Special Olympics and the remarkable athletes who participate in its programs," Maher said. "Here at Niagara University, with our exceptionally talented faculty and students, we continually demonstrate our commitment to serving people with developmental disabilities in our community through our many partnerships and innovative curricula."
Anyone interested in joining the run is encouraged to arrive at Goat Island around 11:30 a.m. The cost to participate is $20, which includes a commemorative T-shirt.
Established in 1981, the Law Enforcement Torch Run is the single largest grassroots fundraiser and public awareness vehicle for the Special Olympics, having raised $461 million since its inception.
The torch makes approximately 45 stops on its statewide journey this year in preparation for the New York Special Olympics, which are being held June 6-7 at the University at Buffalo.
Special Olympics is the largest amateur sports organization in the world, comprising more than 4.2 million athletes with intellectual disabilities in 170 countries. Nearly 65,000 Special Olympics athletes compete in a variety of Olympic-style sports in New York, making the state program the largest in North America.
In 2013, more than 86,000 officers from 35 countries carried the "Flame of Hope" through their communities, raising more than $46 million for the Special Olympics, including more than $1.7 million in New York.
Through its partnership with Special Olympics, Niagara offers coursework to prepare coaches; as a result, NU has hosted a Special Olympics basketball tournament in its Kiernan Center for each of the past three years. NU-trained coaches oversee the event, which also includes an opening ceremony and interactive Olympic Village, complete with food, games, arts, crafts and live music.
NU's College of Education offers bachelor's and master's degrees programs in developmental disabilities, with embedded internship experiences that position candidates for career opportunities in the field. Both programs were developed in collaboration with community-based agencies that serve young adults and adults with disabilities.
In September 2010, NU was the only institution awarded a $650,000 grant from the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council to develop and conduct a statewide disability awareness and sensitivity curriculum and the corresponding training tools for first responders.
The grant allowed David Whalen, a sought-after expert who provides training to police and fire departments in other states, to facilitate the establishment of a first responder disability awareness training program at NU, which provides training throughout the state.
In 2009, NU partnered with Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara to offer the transition readiness for employment in the community program, which endeavors to assist individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities to accrue the skills necessary for community-based employment. More than 50 participants have earned certificates since the program was launched.
This program has since been extended to integrate experiences on campus with both Opportunities Unlimited and United Cerebral Palsy, providing abundant chances for NU students to learn about and work with individuals served by those rehabilitation agencies.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Will spoke during NU's graduate commencement ceremony May 8, he commended the university's work with and outreach to the community of people with developmental disabilities.
"Niagara University is a pioneering national leader in helping the developmentally disabled to participate in our society," said Will, father of a son with Down syndrome. "America's Down syndrome citizens are living longer and flourishing because America has become more welcoming to them, helping them learn and work - because of the kind of work done here on their behalf by Niagara University."
To learn more about Niagara University, visit www.niagara.edu.
Additional information on the Special Olympics can be found at www.specialolympics.org.