News Article Details

Special Olympics New Mexico raising $310,000 cut by state

Las Cruces Sun-News - 8/31/2017

Aug. 31--LAS CRUCES -- Jeffrey Ramirez is a decorated athlete who competes yearly in regional and statewide competitions hosted by Special Olympics New Mexico.

Ramirez, 32, has been an active Special Olympics athlete since middle school and competes and trains in multiple sports, including softball, bocce, track and field, basketball, golf, swimming and cycling to name a few.

But his favorite sport?

"Bowling," he said, adding that his average score is about 120.

Ramirez, a 2006 graduate of Las Cruces High School, also sits on the board that oversees Special Olympics New Mexico, representing about 3,300 athletes across the state who range in age from 8 to 84.

Each year, Special Olympics New Mexico hosts eight statewide competitions and organizes the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run. Ramirez and his family have been fixtures at each event for the past 20 years, according to his mother, Nancy Ramirez.

"Its just a wonderful time for us to connect (with other families)," she said of the state competitions.

But the state competitions hosted by Special Olympics New Mexico may be in jeopardy due to a funding cut from the state Department of Health, and organizers are trying to raise more than $300,000 to cover the loss.

Randy Mascorella, the executive director of Special Olympics New Mexico, is hoping that a recently a launched campaign -- "Can You One Up" -- will help the organization raise the money by November.

The premise of the campaign is simple: "We're asking 310,000 New Mexicans to give a dollar," Mascorella said. "The idea is that I give a dollar and I then challenge you -- I one up you -- to do the same."

The campaigned launched about three weeks ago and has since raised more than $93,000 with more than 900 contributions.

Mascorella said the loss in state funding earlier this year -- about 30 percent of the organization's overall operating budget -- came as a shock.

She said she submitted a proposal for the funding in January, and then learned at the end of the legislative session that the Department of Health had decided to eliminate the funding -- a contract that had been in place since 1982.

"The hardest part was that we were just told that it was eliminated," she said, adding that she learned about the funding cut over a phone call. "We've tried real hard not to spend too much time thinking about how it happened, but we're really trying to put our energy into replacing the dollars because we have to move forward."

The Department of Health's operating budget for fiscal year 2018 was cut by more than $13 million, according to figures provided by the agency. Its operating budget for fiscal year 2017 was $547,576,900, and its current budget is $534,368,500.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the department said, "Within the constraints of our current budget, we are continually looking at all contracts to determine how we can best provide a large range of safety net services and programs that have evidence-based, positive impacts for vulnerable families statewide."

These services and programs include the Family Infant Toddler Program, Medically Fragile Waiver, Central Registry for DD Waivers, Mi Via Self-Directed Waiver and other services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"Despite budget challenges," the department's statement continues, "we remain committed to ensuring that the rights and dignity of all New Mexicans with intellectual and developmental disabilities are fully realized, and are focused on improving their independence and quality of life."

But Ramirez and his mother are still troubled by the funding cut to Special Olympics New Mexico.

"The thought of not having state competitions is disappointing," Nancy Ramirez said. "For the kids, it would be disappointing because socially they like to get together."

Mascorella said the cut in funding angered many other parents.

"Their kids deserve the same chance that everyone else deserves," she said. "Now, you're eliminating what non-disabled kids always get to do ... they have the opportunity to experience sport. For Special Olympic athletes, this is their only opportunity."

She added that Special Olympic athletes in New Mexico stand to lose much more than state competitions if the fundraising effort falls short.

Athletes would lose access to free health screenings that take place at two state competitions, Mascorella said. In 2015, 274 athletes had dental screenings and 189 received prescription glasses or prescription sports goggles.

During that same year, 235 athletes had vision screenings and 252 received fabricated mouth guards. Separately, 94 athletes had their feet screened and evaluated for shoe fittings and ankle/foot pain.

"We recruit volunteer health professionals to come and screen our athletes. It gives them an opportunity to meet our population and screen them (and) learn about them," she said.

According to Mascorella, some athletes wouldn't have access to health care without the Healthy Athletes initiative.

Another initiative facing an uncertain future is Unified Champion Schools, which uses sports and leadership programs to promote inclusion among special education students at schools in New Mexico.

At participating schools, Mascorella said, regular education and special education students play sports with one another. "It makes the school far more welcoming to the special education (students) because now they have regular education students who are their friends," she said.

In 2015, Special Olympics New Mexico served 110 communities in the state and had 65 competition opportunities in 13 different sports, according to its annual report.

To learn more about Special Olympic athletes in New Mexico, visit http://sonm.org/. To donate to the Can You One Up campaign, visit https://www.firstgiving.com/sonm/OneUp.

Carlos Andres López can be reached 575-541-5453, carlopez@lcsun-news.com or @carlopez_los on Twitter.

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(c)2017 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)

Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at www.lcsun-news.com

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