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Special Olympics Michigan launches $20 million 'Building Tomorrow's Champions' campaign to fundraise for new facility

Athletes and supporters greet during the Special Olympics Michigan's "Building tomorrow's Champions" campaign announcement event on Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Grand Rapids, Mich. Photo by Arpan Lopo from The Holland Sentinel

Story by Tess Ware from Central Michigan Life and Arpan Lopo from The Holland Sentinel

The annual Special Olympics summer games take place this Friday and Saturday at 8 a.m. 

This will be the largest event held by Special Olympics Michigan in a year and a half and will be on a smaller scale than in previous years, with only a few hundred individuals, according to President and CEO Tim Hileman.

SOMI announced a new campaign Thursday, June 24 to raise over $20 million for a new facility for athletes in Grand Rapids. The organization says once completed, the facility will be the largest dedicated for Special Olympics in the world. 

SOMI provides year-round sports training and athletic competition to children and adults with intellectual disabilities and serves more than 23,000 athletes and their families through 24 sports.

Fundraising for the "Building Tomorrow's Champions" campaign began last year, and it has already raised just over to $7 million of its $20 million goal, Campaign Co-Chair and WZZM 13 lead anchor Juliet Dragos said. The facility will be at the former Grand Rapids South Christian High School campus.

Renovations will see the 127,000-square-foot campus add new sports fields, expanded space for programming, administrative offices, and educational and wellness space for those served by Special Olympics and its partners. SOMI hopes to host regional, statewide, national and international competitions once renovations are completed. 

Organizers say the campus will also generate economic effects for the region, bringing in athletes and organizations from across the world to West Michigan. 

"I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that what happens in this facility will touch, in some way shape or form, nearly every family in this community," said Small Business Administration of Michigan President and former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, one of the campaign's co-chairs. "It will make our community better and stronger."

Campaign and SOMI officials say the facility will serve as a hub for inclusion in the region. 

Agencies to partner with SOMI to lease the campus once it's completed includes Autism Support of Kent County, Brody’s Be Café, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, Far Out Volleyball Club, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan/be nice, MOKA and Thresholds.

Organizers say more than 100 community donors, local businesses, and area foundations have supported the campaign to date. 

The Special Olympics games will continue to be held in Mount Pleasant, where the SOMI headquarters are located. 

"CMU is thrilled that SOMI is furthering its mission of providing life-changing programming for individuals with intellectual disabilities by building the world’s largest Special Olympics facility right here in our great state," said Central Michigan University President Bob Davies. "We look forward to continuing to foster our relationship with SOMI here in Mount Pleasant — including at the State Summer Games this Friday and Saturday on campus — and across Michigan for the foreseeable future.”

WIth the new Facility in Grand Rapids, SOMI hopes to increase the number of athletes and coaches.

“The more coaches, the more athletes means the bigger Summer Games, the more activity at Central Michigan” Hileman said. “So that's really our goal is raising awareness, more athletes, we get more coaches, and then we can expand all of our state games, you know, throughout our great state and including Summer Games right at CMU and Mount Pleasant.”