MLS All-Star Week Day 2: Match Day

Tuesday kicked off with a quick breakfast where James checked in with a recap of his first day with his new team.

After the most important meal of the day, James and Julia took the the training field for the final time before the evening’s Match against the Western Conference. Just before taking the pitch, the twins got their head shots and Team Special Olympics Massachusetts photos taken.


The Keiths joined all of the Special Olympics Unified teammates for a group lunch and relaxed before heading out to Avaya Stadium for the MLS Works Special Olympics Unified All-Star Match presented by ESPN.


At the stadium, the Unified team was greeted by fans looking for autographs and cheering on the athletes. ESPN commentator and former New England Revolution star, Taylor Twellman gave a pep talk and let the East know he was cheering for them! Coach Anthony from Special Olympics D.C. also addressed the team and then they took the field to cheers!


The game was live-streamed on the Special Olympics Massachusetts Facebook Page and the video will remain available. The action was back and forth, but the Eastern conference managed to score twice in the first half! Julia held strong as a defender for the East who kept the West out of the goal through the first 30 minute period. Both players were interviewed at the half (video below).

In the second half, James was inserted as the goalkeeper with the pressure of holding the lead squarely on his shoulders. The West stepped up their attack but James was ready for the challenge; making six saves and keeping a clean sheet, giving the East the victory!

After the game, fans made their way down to the field to cheer on the athletes as they received their medals. Once the ceremonies wrapped up, the athletes and partners signed autographs. One of the signatures most in-demand was James Keith – the “Dab Goalie”, a name given to him by the fans who cheered him on throughout the second half because of his celebratory dance move.


The evening wrapped up with a team dinner at Johnny Rockets with Milk Shake Cheers all around! After getting their fill of food, the twins headed over to catch the end of the “Men in Blazers” show and ran into Brian Bilello – the President of the New England Revolution. Brian was nice enough to stop and have a good chat with the Special Olympics Massachusetts crew before snapping this great pic:

New England Revolution President, Brian Bilello with James & Julia.

New England Revolution President, Brian Bilello with James & Julia.

MLS All-Star Week Day 1: Travel & Training

James and Julia Keith are twins from North Andover who play Unified Soccer with the Andover Stars local program. They were chosen to attend the 2016 MLS Works Special Olympics All-Star Experience presented by ESPN in San Jose, California this summer. We will be following their experience and sharing how MLS and ESPN are working to spread inclusion through sports with this showcase event.

Monday, July 25th started early! James and Julia Keith began their journey to San Jose with a 4:00am ET drive to the airport. After hopping onto their first flight to San Jose, they landed in Salt Lake City for a layover with a few other Special Olympics delegations including Washington D.C. and New York City. They also net up with the crew from Utah! We were able to take a few minutes to check in with James about his trip so far and expectations for the week:

The Keiths hung out with their fellow athletes and partners, while getting to know their Eastern Conference head coach Anthony from Special Olympics D.C. before jumping on their flight to San Jose.

Once they landed in California, the whole crew headed over their home for the week – the Fairmont San Jose. This is the same hotel that the MLS All-Stars are staying in and it will serve as the hub for all the week’s events.

While checking in, Andrew Farrell was walking through the lobby and spotted James. He was nice enough to give James an interview:

James and Julia then hopped on the Special Olympics All-Star team bus and headed out to their first training session with their new teammates. The coaches put them through their paces with stretches, drills and a scrimmage. James learned he would be playing in goal, while Julia was assigned to a defensive role on the left side.

After training the east and west all-stars went out for a groups dinner at Original Joe’s in downtown San Jose, where they were hooked up with a private room when the athletes, partners and coaches could celebrate their experience and get to know each other better.

Julia & Scotty from Special Olympics Colorado

Julia & Scotty from Special Olympics Colorado

Everyone headed back to bed to get ready for Match Day on Tuesday!

Getting More out of Unified Sports

By: Sarah Keith

Brendan Aylward has been volunteering for Special Olympics Massachusetts (SOMA) for over eight years. He began in a unified program, “It was my first experience working with anyone with a disability and I loved it”, and has continued to be involved with SOMA ever since. He is now the director of the Central Massachusetts Special Olympics program, through which he coaches soccer, basketball, golf, tennis, and baseball. He was also a coach at the USA Games in 2014.UHP 2

These experiences inspired him to pursue the study of special education and exercise science in college. He now has combined his love of coaching and special education to open an inclusive gym, Unified Health and Performance, in Lancaster, MA. Brendan’s goal is to move towards “having classes that are a combination of athletes with and without disabilities”. He begins his classes with a certain set of movements to teach the athletes, but also has various adaptations that can be implemented for any athlete who needs a modification.

“With sports, you get a lot more out of it than just the athletic and fitness components,” Alyward explains, “The kids are all good friends, they spend time together in school, and then they’re able to come here and spend their quality time together and do something that they all enjoy.”

Brendan hopes to eventually reach an even more adaptive level with his athletic facility, in order to reach even more athletes in need of a place to stay fit. “That’s what I find most rewarding, is finding ways to get them active and having them realize that they can do things that they might see other people doing and assume they can’t.”

UHP 1Unified Health and Performance held their grand opening on July 9th. There are currently summer programs in session, including a group class for Central MA Special Olympics. More information on Brendan and Unified Health and Performance can be found at:

Natalie Colon – Advocacy Through Running

By: Lindsay Gomes

Natalie ColonAfter declaring 2016 as her “year to volunteer”, Natalie decided to join the 2016 Special Olympics Massachusetts Falmouth Road Race Team. This is not Natalie’s first event with Special Olympics Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Natalie and her husband fundraised for the Polar Plunge and her husband took the plunge! Natalie made the decision to join this year’s team due to her passion towards special education and fitness.

Natalie has always had a passion for special education. Throughout her life, she spent time surrounded by individuals with disabilities and challenges which is why she wants to advocate for people in need. Not only has she witnessed these struggles, she has also faced them in her own life.

While growing up, Natalie had an Individual Education Program (IEP). Through the support system provided by her school and family, Natalie was able to overcome it. “I know what it’s like to work so hard for the little things”, said Natalie. Her personal connection to special education grew stronger as her oldest son and youngest son faced educational delays. She believes that her oldest son was able to grow out of it because of all the opportunities and extra-curricular activities that they took advantage of. Currently, Natalie is working as a social worker at the elderly home where she had previously volunteered at. She hopes to get her master’s degree in social work. During her time working at the elderly home, she has been able to relate to patients with intellectual disabilities. This has helped Natalie discover her true passions, leading her to Special Olympics.

She believes that Special Olympics is beneficial because it provides children with physical activity but most importantly inclusion. Not only did her son overcome his Individual Education Program but he continues to prove to Natalie that he can do whatever he sets his mind to.

“I’m running to be an advocate for my kids, an advocate for myself, and an advocate for other people to make them more educated on the cause”, said Natalie.

Natalie ran the Falmouth Road Race 2 years ago and sees this as the perfect opportunity to do the two things she loves; train and fundraise. This will be Natalie’s first time running for a cause and running on a team. She also ran the Boston Marathon as a qualified runner in 2006 and mostly participates in half marathons. She thinks the Falmouth Road Race is a great race and wants to run the Cape Cod Marathon or the Bay State Marathon in the future.

Natalie believes that exercise is beneficial to everyone and can help people to reach their goals. She wants to fundraise for Special Olympics because she knows how much the athletes look forward to their events. Not only that, but it also gives them the opportunity to make friends, interact with other athletes and be involved in physical activity.

She began running at 11 years old which helped her recognize how import fitness is to everyone’s lives. “I feel that everyone needs exercise, friendships, goals, and teamwork”, said Natalie.
Throughout her life, Natalie has been exposed to the struggles and hardships of many different people. Because of all of these eye-opening experiences, she has decided to run the Falmouth Road Race and fundraise for Special Olympics.

“We as parents recognize the importance of these programs. We pay so much just for daily living. Anyone with a child who can participate should participate. It introduces them to many tools for life. With the right tools and support, everyone is in the same boat.”


Support Natalie Today


A Network of Families

Anyone who has read Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, will recall one of her recommendations for leading a happy life is to make new friendships. Sometimes making new friends can be challenging for parents of children with special needs. Our kids might have a tough time at public events and often our attention is so focused on our child we don’t have opportunities to socialize and meet new people. Many of us have written “form a network of understanding peers” on our to-do list. As days then weeks then months pass, that item remains unchecked. We may even experience feelings of sadness and loneliness. We read about increasing numbers of diagnosis, yet we don’t know how to connect with those families. Special Olympics has the power to help parents build that network and check that item off the to-do list.


Marci and her Mid State Sports Bowling Team.

Last fall, my friend, Julia Gionet, and I were bowling with our kids and Julia said, “I wish we had a Special Olympics bowling team.” We agreed to make that wish come true. Four months later, our new local program, Midstate Sports, hosted its first candlepin bowling season at Mason’s Bowling and Recreation Center in Leominster. Each week, my son looked forward to bowling with his friends. Friendships amongst parents formed quickly and siblings joined the team. Our seven athletes bowled without bumpers and gained some impressive bowling skills over a few weeks!

My husband, Rob Haneisen, coached the first season for the Midstate Sports athletics team. We had ten athletes and nine volunteers enjoying weekly track and field drills. On August 20, Coach Rob will run the Falmouth Road Race to raise funds for Special Olympics.

I am proud that we have a lot of parent and sibling involvement in our Midstate Sports programs. Sometimes a whole family is participating as athletes and volunteers and they are all on the field exercising and playing with the group. With some of the other families, mom and dad walk laps around the track during practice. Our program gives them time to exercise for a healthy body and time to talk for a healthy marriage.

Midstate Sports athletes are between the ages of 8-15 and several of our team members are on the autism spectrum. We meet the children where they are at. We understand sensory overload and meltdowns. When a child is having a tough day at practice we recognize that just being there matters and is a success.

We are looking forward to our next candlepin bowling season after the school year starts. In the meantime, we visit each other, celebrate birthdays, meet to play and encourage each other through challenges. Because of Special Olympics we now have a network of families to encourage and support each other in our journeys.


Marshal “Marci” Haneisen
Midstate Sports Local Program Coordinator & Coach

Spreading the Love with Over the Edge

Erica Harvey

Erica on her way Over the Edge at the Hyatt Regency Boston

Erica Harvey was first introduced to Over the Edge in 2013 but decided not to participate – a decision she came to regret. The following year, Erica jumped at the opportunity to take part in the event. After her first year rappelling, she began volunteering at the Summer and Winter Games competitions where she was quickly welcomed into the Special Olympics Massachusetts community. This year, Erica has taken charge and will for her second year captain an Over the Edge team. Special Olympics Massachusetts (SOMA) sat down with Erica to discuss her history with Over the Edge, her relationship to the SOMA, and what this event truly means to her.

SOMA: First, tell me a little about your history with Over the Edge? It is certainly an event that requires you to have an adventurous side – did that appear to be a factor when registering your first time?

Erica: I first heard about Over the Edge through work, I didn’t partake the first year and spent the next year kicking myself for not doing it because it looked so fun! I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to do something extreme but I’ve always been obsessed with heights and aerial photography so getting a view of the city I hadn’t been able to before was a huge factor!

SOMA: It’s certainly a beautiful view. Over the Edge is typically a “bucket list” event for a lot of our participants. With the exception of a few hardcore SOMA supporters in the mix, usually participants come for the event itself, not the mission it supports. What keeps you coming back year after year?

Erica: Every year, the rappel and the events leading up to the rappel are different, there are new team members to bond and fundraise with, new rappellers to share the day with and best of all, new people learning about the cause and what the athletes do.

SOMA: Did you have a personal connection to SOMA prior to joining Over the Edge, or perhaps you have one now that you’ve stuck around?

Erica: The first year I did the rappel, I did not volunteer at the games, but found that people donating wanted to see more so I started volunteering at the Summer and Winter Games. As much as they’re great photo opportunities to get more donations, the competitions are a TON of fun too. I had no real ties to the Games but every athlete you meet has their own story and quickly immerses you into their community. The last Winter Games, Jose and Johnny “Love” had me cracking up on the bowling lanes.

On a more personal level, I do it for my dad and with my best friend.

My dad passed when I was in high school, but always encouraged me to help others since he was a police officer in Lowell and probably pushed the wild side in me a little too much for my mom’s liking! When we’d go on family vacations, he was always the one to make me try new foods or to let me pick out the excursions which usually involved a helicopter or something up high!

My best friend was also diagnosed with CIDP, which paralyzed him for a year around the time of my first rappel three years ago and we both found ourselves to be lucky in a bad situation so we wanted to spread the love and find a cause we could both 100% support. It’s been easy for him to volunteer with me at the Games because everybody is so understanding of an individual’s needs.

SOMA: Personal connections are what drive most of our supporters and fundraisers. In 2015, you went a step further and captained your corporate team, Wayfair. What motivated you to take on that role?

Erica: Overexcitement! I realized that I had started fundraising the same time the previous year so I started asking around. When I realized nobody had grabbed the reins, I figured I needed to so that we could get as much fundraising time as possible in.

SOMA: You are team captain again this year, but for a different team. Tell me about your new team – who/how do you plan to recruit?

Erica: This year was tricky recruiting as Wayfair has a large office and plenty of people to reach out to. My new job is more international so getting people here posed a trick, but some friends know I’ve done it and have signed up to rappel alongsid
e me. I think the fact that I’ve been able to raise the money and survive the actual rappel is proof they can do it too. Anybody can! My sister will be signing up soon, so it’ll be a family affair this year and I’M excited for that!

SOMA: What are your techniques for engaging your teammates and how do you plan to fundraise as a team?

ERICA: Usually we just message or text each other, especially this year with a small team. Last year we were doing a lot of communication via email. We’ll get together here and there to plan, but a lot is deciding who can do what and acting on our own. This year we’re hoping to have some raffles, maybe a bake sale and will be placing out some donation jars at local stores. Obviously more will come up, but this is just the tip of the iceberg!

SOMA: Tell me a little about your fundraising strategies. No need to give all of your secrets away, but I’m hoping you might have some tips/tricks that our other fundraisers can benefit from. Who do you reach out to, and how? Any words of wisdom for fellow fundraisers?

Erica: Social media is your best friend. I post on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook OFTEN. I find that nobody will say no or tell you to stop posting for a worthy cause so I’m a bit shameless.

I’ve teased my friends that I’ll post more cat pictures if they don’t donate, asked for donations corresponding to my birthday ($28 for my 28th, so on) and other special days and always post pictures from the games or any volunteer days related to the rappel (one year Color Me Rad was fundraising for Special Olympics so I volunteered there).

Now that it’s June, I’ll start messaging or emailing people that haven’t donated yet, especially if I’ve donated to them or they’ve mentioned they would later. Always remind the ones who say “later”! They do mean it, but life happens and they forget!

If you would like to donate to Erica Harvey, you can do so here:


If you would like to register for Over the Edge, please do so here:











The Keith Family: All In.

By: Sarah Keith

My family loves to get involved. I cannot remember (and actually do not think I have ever experienced) a month without some sort of volunteer event, charity bike ride, or fundraiser. My mother calls it ‘Irish Charity’, and says that it is simply in our blood to do anything we can for those around us. I remember arriving at our hotel in Arizona for a vacation at 3am, and being woken up just three hours later by my parents. They had apparently been unable to sleep and, loitering in the lobby, had learned of a 4.2 mile charity run nearby and had signed our entire family up. The race started at 6:30am and all three of us kids were dragged down to the starting line. We all finished and it was actually a blast!


The Keith Family: Kathy, Julia, Jimmy, Sarah and Doug

As a family, we do everything together. All of the volunteer events we participate in are family affairs, and while it may sound impressive getting three teenagers to coordinate their schedules so frequently, the most incredible thing about our family is that my brother James participates in every single event with us. James has Down syndrome and, while he has special needs, he is usually the most energetic one at all of the finish lines. The best way to describe him was penned by one of his teachers this year, “James does not have special needs; he has special talents”. We are very fortunate that James is so extremely high functioning. At 5’10” and 195 pounds, he defies every aspect of the textbook definition of Down syndrome. His drive to succeed in life has motivated my family to be as involved in helping others with special needs as possible, leading us to our deep connection to Special Olympics.

As soon as my parents discovered James’ disability, my dad got involved in SOMA’s fundraisers. He began with the Golf-A-Thon, completing over 5 rounds of golf (in one day!) to raise money for SOMA. Next, he started biking in any ride he could for SOMA, and eventually the rest of us joined in, participating in a dozen 25 mile rides for Special Olympics. Over the years he has risen through the ranks and is now the Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics Massachusetts, and his current yearly fundraiser for Special Olympics is the Boston Marathon, where he runs on the SOMA team.


The Keiths with one of their cycling fundraiser teams in 2011.

While my dad’s fundraising does not go unnoticed, almost even more impressive is the number of SOMA events my mom coordinates every year. The year James began as an athlete in the School Day Games, about twelve years ago, the town that was supposed to host the games canceled due to rain. Not about to miss this awesome event, my mom decided to rally our town and the games were moved to North Andover, where they have remained ever since with my mom running the event. When James turned eight (the minimum age to participate in Unified Sports) there was not a local basketball program in North Andover. This was again quickly rectified by my mother, who has been running the North Andover Crusaders basketball team for the last ten years. My sister and I, always loyal volunteers, played as unified partners. On the night of the very first practice there was a giant blizzard, but this didn’t stop a traffic jam from forming outside the building where practice was held. Over 100 athletes and partners came that first night, and the numbers haven’t dipped in the last ten years.

Once my brother was in middle school, it became clear that James was the athlete of the family and basketball was not enough. So, as a family, we joined the Andover Stars soccer unified team. Several years later, when the family who ran the program ‘retired’ and stepped down, my family stepped up. The team was moved to the North Andover fields as my mom, my sister, and I began to run this team as well, with my dad continuing on as a coach.

Being a member of these Special Olympic Unified Teams has been one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. As a student at The Governor’s Academy, my sister and I were able to help run the SOMA State Soccer Tournament, the same tournament we had been attending for so many years.

SOMA 2015-101

Jimmy & Julia at the State Soccer Cup at The Governor’s Academy in 2015

As if soccer and basketball were not enough, once in high school James joined every sports team he could, and earned varsity letters in Track and Skiing on the high school teams! He is an extraordinary athlete, and is currently an alternate for the Special Olympic World Games Ski Team.

Special Olympics Massachusetts is an organization very near and dear to my family. We spend so much time volunteering and fundraising with them because we know first-hand the incredible influence Special Olympics have on athletes’ lives. James is one of the most confident, strong-willed people I know and a lot of that comes from the encouragement he has received from teammates and spectators at every SOMA event.

Having a brother with Down syndrome and a family so involved in Special Olympics has altered my life in so many important ways. I have learned that how people treat other people, regardless of their abilities, is a true judge of character. With this guiding me, I have discovered so many friends who love my family and my brother, and who have joined us in becoming involved with unified sports.

James is my best friend, and I am so thankful for him and his positive influence in my life. I am the person I am today because of the generosity I have learned from my parents, the support I have witnessed in Special Olympic sports, and as the beneficiary of the genuine smiles on every athlete I have ever had the opportunity to meet.