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Mariia Diahilieva ’26 was a high school exchange student in New Hampshire when the Russo-Ukrainian War escalated in February 2022.
The Young Athletes Program by Special Olympics is comprised of Merrimack student volunteers who work with children from ages 2 to 7 with special needs. For the past six weeks, the volunteers have worked on gross and fine motor skills through fun activities and sports.
Thirty-five Merrimack College students, representing the schools of Education, Science and Engineering, Liberal Arts and Business met on Saturday mornings and worked one-on-one with between 22 and 44 young children from the surrounding community to strengthen their motor skills. The Merrimack volunteers were trained by a Special Olympics representative and five of them are certified in AED training with CPR and in first aid.
The Young Athletes Program was brought to Merrimack by Morgan Sleeman ’18 last fall; the spring semester program was the second term and doubled in size in participating children and families and almost doubled the number of volunteers from 20 to 35.
The program is SGA recognized and its E-board members are: Sleeman ’18, president; Chris Tiberi ’16, vice president; Connor Lavey ’17, treasurer; and Jessica Bruso ’17, secretary. In addition to the Saturday sessions, this board would meet weekly to plan the Saturday lesson plans, songs and equipment they would need. They were given a training and curriculum book by Special Olympics to assist them.
Sleeman first participated in this program in high school in Vermont and found it to be a perfect match to the Merrimack atmosphere of Augustinian values.
“Not only do we get to see the little kids grow; we get to see the volunteers grow as well,” said Sleeman. It is the type of experience that is sure to help all of the volunteers in future careers or in their personal lives, she said.
It is a young program with 10 to 12 volunteers being freshmen and Sleeman is excited for the future of the program.
It was important to have a police officer hand out the awards, said Sleeman. It makes the children feel it is a big deal to complete this program.
“We also like to promote the fact that police officers are friendly and not scary,” said Sleeman.
“I was honored and humbled to be a part of this great program and to witness the excitement in the eyes of the children,” said DelGreco. “I was proud to see how involved our Merrimack students were, and the enthusiasm they displayed – to see how they really cared.”