WASHINGTON (CNS) — A partnership between Catholic Relief Services and Special Olympics International is expected to bring together the expertise of both organizations to help people with intellectual disabilities move from the margins of society.

Announced Nov. 6, the partnership will connect the development work of CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, with Special Olympics’ health services and education efforts in an effort designed to overcome the stigma people with intellectual disabilities and their families face in many countries.

Representatives of the organizations said the arrangement, under development for more than a year, will allow both agencies to reach greater numbers of people with intellectual disabilities.


“This is the evangelizing of human dignity,” Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics International chairman, told Catholic News Service.

“This partnership is a very simple thing. It’s about righting a wrong, not a wrong of nature but a wrong of misunderstanding and exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities,” Shriver explained.

“No better organization in the world can reach a population that has been excluded. CRS brings the spiritual dimension and religious dimension and speaks volumes about compassion and dignity and respect in addition to service and change and economic growth and development,” he said. “CRS understands that dignity ought to be a universal right, not a quality given to some and denied others.”

Special Olympics International has long offered people with intellectual disabilities and their families a variety of health services, health education programs and athletic games, but it did not have the reach in the development field that CRS has maintained for decades.

For CRS, the arrangement will allow it to expand services to people with intellectual disabilities who are often pushed to the margins of their communities, said Shannon Senefeld, the agency’s director of program impact and quality assurance.

“Now with Special Olympics, there’s an added dimension. We can integrate routine screening for intellectual disabilities in our programs. Now is an opportunity to enhance the services we provide and take advantage of the expertise that Special Olympics has,” she said.

“This is a unique opportunity for Catholic Relief Services to really fulfill our mission to the most marginalized populations,” she added.

Under the partnership, CRS health care workers will be trained to begin screening children for intellectual disabilities. Senefeld said other efforts will begin to allow CRS staffers to work with local communities to develop programs and services to reduce the likelihood that children diagnosed with an intellectual disability will be shunned or ignored.

The program will begin first in Cambodia, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, where CRS and Special Olympics already have strong child health care programs in place and the need for screening services to be largely unmet.

The partnership had its genesis more than a year ago as Special Olympics officials sought to expand its work into human development. Shriver said Kristin Hughes, the organization’s senior manager of global community health programs, suggested a partnership with CRS. It turns out that Hughes had been a student of CRS President Carolyn Woo when she taught at the University of Notre Dame and had visited CRS operations under the school’s “Business on the Frontlines” course.

Woo visited a Special Olympics program in Korea early in 2013, leading to a quick agreement to formalize the partnership, Shriver said.

“They’re (CRS) excited too because they see the network of citizen activists that we at Special Olympics can bring, some children, some families, some adults that might not have surfaced in traditional development circles,” he said.

“It’s great for CRS to start to see sports as a vehicle for development, to see play as a vehicle for human growth and community building.”