Criminal Offenders In Alternative Sentencing Give Public-Service Time To Special Olympics
March 8, 2007
By ALAINE GRIFFIN, Courant Staff Writer
At first, the partnership seemed unusual, perhaps a little risky.
But the state's judicial branch went ahead with a plan in 1995 to have criminal offenders in alternative sentencing programs serve as volunteers for the Special Olympics. .
Twelve years later, the thousands of hours offenders have spent helping set up Special Olympics events, serving food to spectators and cheering on athletes are being recognized. The judicial branch will receive Special Olympics Connecticut's Community Leadership Award tonight at the organization's annual event honoring volunteers.
"It really took years and years to build up our credibility and gain the confidence of the people who do the Special Olympics, so we're thrilled to get this recognition," said Jim Greene of the judicial branch's court support services division.
Greene remembers the mission then-Chief Court Administrator Aaron Ment set when Greene discussed getting involved with the Special Olympics and making court-ordered community service about more than picking up garbage along the state's highways.
"He said, `If we want judges to sentence people to community service, we have to elevate people in the type of community service they do,'" Greene recalled Ment saying. "But there were a lot of questions about whether we could be appropriate for this situation. So we watched and monitored everything very closely."
Soon, Special Olympics events held throughout the year were bolstered by the work of the volunteer criminal offenders, most of whom knew very little about mental retardation. And the offenders appeared challenged, ready to find their productive place in society.
"Many other volunteers there gave our people a chance to get rid of the stigma they have in their own minds because they were treated just like regular volunteers," Greene said. "And by elevating the level of the task they can do, it showed them they do have something to offer."
Joel Suero, 19, who was part of a team that stacked and sliced 18,000 ham-and-cheese sandwiches for the Special Olympics games last summer, admits he was a bit apprehensive at first to work with the mentally retarded, since he had no formal training.
"At first, I was nervous," Suero said. "But after a while, they started to look up to me and I learned to handle the fact that they didn't catch on as fast. I ended up having a lot of fun working with them."
Part of the disposition of Suero's first-degree assault case included 120 hours of community service. He said he's completed 270 hours, many of which were spent at Special Olympics events.
Richard Reynolds, program director of the Youth Center for Change in New Haven, where Suero and 30 other offenders live, said youths planning to complete their required community service often ask to participate in the Special Olympics. Offenders also volunteer making playgrounds for towns and cities and homes for Habitat for Humanity.
"They seem to get a lot out of helping someone," Reynolds said.
Special Olympics officials say they can't imagine doing events now without their help.
"When we look back at the days we didn't have them and think of the scope of our events, we just shake our heads," said Laurie-Jean Hannon, vice president of games and sports development for Special Olympics Connecticut. Hannon nominated the community service program for the award.
"They are a good group of volunteers that truly are a major piece of what we do," she said. "It's really turned out to be a great partnership."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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