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NYS Executive Budget includes $1M for Special Olympics New York after call for funding

Delaware North, Special Olympics New York, and unified sports athletes in a group photo
Emyle Watkins | WBFO News
Delaware North, Special Olympics New York, and unified sports athletes gather for a group photo.

On Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul’s Executive Budget included $1 million for Special Olympics New York, which provides free of cost athletic opportunities to people of all ages with disabilities.

WBFO’s Disability Reporter Emyle Watkins first reported in December that the organization was asking the state for at least $1.5 million in the next budget to prevent program cuts. Watkins spoke with their CEO after the budget was released to get her reaction.


Emyle Watkins: This is Emyle Watkins and I'm joined by Special Olympics New York CEO Stacey Hengsterman. Stacey, thank you so much for joining me on WBFO.

Stacey Hengsterman: Thank you for having me.

Watkins: To start, a few weeks ago, you came on WBFO to share that Special Olympics was requesting the state increase your funding in order to save programs. Take me back to that, and what was your goal and why is this funding vital?

Hengsterman: Well, we've been, our strategic plan is really driving our work and we want to reach more people with intellectual differences. We want to make sure that our athletes, our current athletes have all the opportunities and increase their opportunities. But we just found with this year that it just we could not keep up with the increased costs. So although we were raising more money, we were having to turn athletes away at games, which was absolutely breaking our hearts.

Watkins: And to be clear, your funding is a bit different than other recreational programs that the state funds for people with disabilities.

Hengsterman: Yeah, we, the majority of our funding, 75, 80% we fundraise. And I really just, I thank New Yorkers for doing that. They're the ones that are participating in our polar plunges, and our galas, and our events to raise money. We don't charge the athletes anything for their opportunities, their athletic opportunities. So we raise those funds and we do get, we have gotten a million and a half dollars from the state.

Watkins: And I know Governor Kathy Hochul's Executive Budget announcement Tuesday came with some exciting news [for Special Olympics], she included [a] $1 million increase to Special Olympics funding. What was your reaction?

Hengsterman: Ah, I was absolutely ecstatic. She's, finding out that she sees us, she values our work that we do for these athlete and is increasing the state's contribution to our work was just absolutely the best news that I could ever hear. It makes us, me, so proud to be part of this organization. And just so, so thankful to the governor for being a fan.

Watkins: Now, I know Hochul's budget is her recommendation. This will still have to be voted on. How confident are you that this will pass with the budget?

Hengsterman: We're going to do our legwork. I mean, I am pretty confident. I know that we have a lot of people out there, a lot of legislators out there that support our work. So I would be very surprised if we lost it. I do think we have gotten money from the legislature in the past. I do think that we'll go to them and see if they can kick in any extra too, just to secure that 1.5 million [dollars] that was our original ask. But I'm pretty confident in our legislature that they also value our work. So we just have a little bit, a little bit further to go.

Watkins: Lastly, what would you say to the legislators who will be voting on this funding?

Hengsterman: I would say just come see our, just come see us in action. And we are in every single community in New York. In every one of their districts, you have people with intellectual disabilities that are participating in Special Olympics. It is life changing for them and for their families. It's in their schools. And if they are not aware of the work that we do, it's hard to imagine, but come check us out. We are here. And I know that they will be fans too.

Watkins: Great. Well, thank you Stacey.

Hengsterman: Thank you so much.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.