Missy Siner, who splits her time between Fayston and Grand Isle, has served as president and CEO of Special Olympics Vermont (SOVT) since February 2019. “There are two things I love most about my job,” she said. “The first is that joy is actually part of the mission … The second piece is the message and advocacy for inclusion and the opportunity to learn, to be exposed to the gifts that everyone has if you get to be in an environment that allows that and promotes and embraces that.”
Siner said growing up in The Valley helped prepare her for her career. “My experience at Harwood helped me in terms of I had a very strong sense of community growing up here in The Valley and being a student and athlete and student leader at Harwood. Those relationships with positive role models in the community” led her on her path. After graduating from Wellesley College, Siner returned to Vermont to teach as a paraeducator, part-time social studies teacher and field hockey coach at Harwood Union High School. “One factor that brought me to Special Olympics was in my role as a paraeducator at Harwood,” she said. “On my first day I was assigned to help a student with her locker. We were walking through the halls, and this student had both developmental and some physical disabilities, and it just really struck me that her experience at Harwood was very different than mine and that I had not appreciated that when I was a student. It made a really positive impact on me. Another contributing factor is that I have a really good friend and her son has also become my really good friend and he has Down Syndrome. I have known him since he was a little kid. I worked at Sugarbush day camp and taught him to swim. Those were some motivational drivers for the work at Special Olympics.”
Siner says many people are not aware of the comprehensive work SOVT does with athletes, families and other members of the community. “We’re an organization that leverages the power of sport to work with and advocate for and promote inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), but what we’re actually doing is building communities where we all get to be our best selves and learn from one another. We know that the sooner in life you bring people with differences together the less they focus on difference and the more they focus on commonality. We’re really about focusing on what is capable, what is possible. That’s the roots of the organization. Here’s what people with IDD are capable of.”
In addition to hosting events, SOVT partners with organizations to promote health. “The health statistics for people with intellectual disabilities are incredibly disheartening,” she said. “They are four times more likely to have diabetes, two times more likely to have heart disease, two times more likely to be obese. On average their lifespan is 16 years shorter than a person without an intellectual disability and it has nothing to do with an underlying health condition. It is all about how our culture treats people and provides access, so SOVT does a lot of health programming by partnering with organizations. For our summer games we partner with audiologists, optometrists and dentists. [Athletes] can walk away with glasses, they can come away with a prescription to get a hearing aid and full dental throughout the year. “People think ‘oh, you get together once a year and have potato sack races or something,’” Siner said. “It’s not that. We have a ton of fun and the emphasis is not on winning. The athlete oath is ‘let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ It’s legit sports competition but with a whole different mindset and we’re comprehensive in the approach to that so that athletes have training, preparation, nutrition and access to decent health care. We can say, ‘Here’s this resource that’s available, here’s how you access it.’ You can’t be a good athlete unless you have proper nutrition and training.”
SOVT also works with approximately 80 schools across the state to provide unified sports programming. It also partners with state colleges and universities, including Norwich University and UVM Medical Center. “One of the problems is in medical and dental school curricula, there’s not adequate coverage. ‘How do you do a dental exam on a person with autism?’ is a very different approach,” she said. “They may not have an inclusive practice if they don’t have the training to do that. So, we’re really trying to be effective at the grassroots level to help folks understand the need.”
Last weekend, SOVT celebrated WinterFest at Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton after two years of COVID canceling or limiting events. “Saturday was so great because it was the first in-person event we’d had in a long time and the joy, it’s us -- it’s the athletes, it’s the parents, it’s the staff, it’s the coaches, it’s the volunteers, all together,” she said. SOVT is gearing up for the penguin plunge, its largest fundraiser, this Saturday. Last year, due to the pandemic, the penguin plunge was scaled down to time slots in groups of five. The event raised nearly $300,000, whereas it raised over $600,000 in 2020. This year the organization has set a goal of raising $450,000. More than 700 people are registered to plunge into the frigid waters of Lake Champlain to raise funds and awareness of people with IDD. SOVT will also hold a ‘southern plunge’ in Manchester on March 26.
SOVT is comprised of eight full-time staff members and thousands of volunteers, who work with more than 5,000 Vermonters each year. “We have two athlete directors on our board of directors,” Siner said. “Athlete voice and athlete leadership is something we try very hard to make sure we walk the walk; we’re not just talking the talk. We’re not an organization that does for, we do with.”
“SOVT looks forward to increasing in-person athlete event opportunities over the next several months, including unified champion school tournaments in basketball and bocce, and newly inspired iterations of summer and fall games, with events like bocce, soccer and track and field.” Siner is an avid skier -- from alpine to Nordic -- and enjoys hiking and playing with her dog. She is also a cyclist and loves spending time with family and friends. “That’s why my work is such a good fit for me. What I do in my work is also what I like to do. It’s rewarding and it’s fun.”