When sophomore Kelsey Koupal came to USD, she couldn’t find a student organization that suited her interests. That’s why she started the USD Special Olympics Club this year.
Working with people with disabilities has always been an interest for Koupal.
“You walk out of it so rewarded,” she said. “For me, if I have one athlete come up to me and say, ‘Thank you, I enjoyed the day,’ or ‘I had an awesome time,’ it’s totally worth it.”
The first of its kind in South Dakota – the clubs’s goal is to connect college students and individuals with intellectual disabilities through intramural sports. Club members cheer on athletes and also have the opportunity to play side-by-side with them in sports such as softball, basketball and volleyball.
Seth Pierce, a senior sport management major and an executive committee member of the club, said he’s hoping to increase interest in the organization.
“I’m excited to introduce our campus to all the athletes, which is a whole new world that they’ve never seen before,” Pierce said. “This is a great organization that is extremely selfless and has all these wonderful athletes to meet, grow relationships and make friends with.”
In third grade, one of Koupal’s best friends had Down syndrome, so she’s always had a personal connection to people with disabilities, she said.
“Every person changes your life in a different way,” Koupal said. “I think that it’s so important for every (college) campus to be able to interact with those individuals because they’re becoming more and more a part of our society.”
Koupal’s passion for working with people with disabilities goes beyond her leadership for the Special Olympics club — she’s worked as a mentor for students with Down syndrome, taught in a preschool for children with intellectual abilities and volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“It’s really taken off,” she said. “I have always known these are the people I wanted to work with and be around.”
Despite being one of the newest student organizations on campus, Pierce said there’s been plenty of interest from students and community members.
“We already have 150 members interested. We’ve got a lot of ties in Sioux Falls as well as other towns that want to help out,” Pierce said. “The athletic department and President Abbott are already expressing interest. There’s a lot of good we’re looking forward to doing.”
Pete Sternburg, a sophomore accounting major, is one of the group’s new members.
“I’ve heard it’s life-changing. It’s good work, and I definitely want to be involved in that and see how the actual process works,” Sternburg said. “I think that new members can do good work here, get good experience and help kids who could use it.”
Koupal said she’s optimistic about the year and excited to see so many members open to learning about the club.
“I understand it can be a little intimidating working with someone who may have not had the same life experiences as you,” she said. “I truly believe that once you give it a shot and see what we’re about, you’re going to love it.”