Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run creating awareness, legacy

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter. You can click here for information on becoming a member, and can follow the Alumni Association on Facebook and Twitter for more stories and updates on events. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — Sue Paterno has one very clear goal for the Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run: Making sure the Special Olympics athletes who participate are front and center.

The event, now in its sixth year, will take place Sunday, April 19, the day after the annual Blue-White football scrimmage. The money raised benefits Special Olympics Pennsylvania, providing much-needed funding for various activities, including travel expenses and other costs associated with sending athletes to the World Summer Games and World Winter Games.

Participants will have the opportunity to run into Beaver Stadium, finish on the 50-yard line and high-five Franco Harris; and some fundraisers will mingle with celebrities at a VIP reception the night before the race, which will begin at approximately 11 a.m. and has two options: a three-mile run or one-mile walk.

It’s sure to be a festive weekend with friends and family coming together in Happy Valley, but the focus for organizers of the race, especially Paterno, is on the athletes.

“I think it’s really important that people are aware what the event is for,” said Paterno, who the Penn State Alumni Association named a Distinguished Alumna in 2004.        

“The biggest legacy of Special Olympics is that people are more aware of other conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and bipolar disorder. I think that’s the gift that Special Olympics has given: People have learned from watching Special Olympics athletes that their conditions have nothing to do with income level or any particular race.”

Paterno has served on the board of directors for Special Olympics Pennsylvania since 1992 and has volunteered her time since 1987; and the Paterno family has supported the nonprofit organization for more than two decades. Sue also serves on the Summer Games Committee and has helped with the exponential growth of the Beaver Stadium Run, which was amended to include the Paterno Family name last year. In its first year, the Beaver Stadium Run raised approximately $36,000. Juxtapose that with last year’s number: $403,000. Her goal this year is $450,000, possibly even a half million dollars.

Speaking about the event a few weeks ago, Paterno talked about the athletes, many of whom she sees regularly, either at board meetings (a Special Olympics athlete sits on the board) or while the athletes are working at their University or community job.

She remembers athletes’ names and where they work. She recalled seeing an athlete named Matt at a local grocery store recently; she joked with him, asking if he was going to perform in a skit during the VIP reception. During their chat, Paterno discovered Matt’s been busy writing a book, highlighting her point about how sharp Special Olympics athletes are. And if it sounds like she has a close connection with the athletes, that’s because she does, saying, “They’re my buddies.”

Paterno added: “I don’t feel like they have to learn to participate with mainstream society because I think they already are mainstream in our society.”

This acceptance has been the result, Paterno said, of a gradual learning process that’s taken place over the last decade or two. Before, athletes with special needs either shied away from the spotlight or weren’t given the proper attention. Now, with events like the Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run, that’s changed.
 

Sue at VIP reception

An annual VIP reception takes place the night before the event, allowing fundraisers to meet Special Olympics Athletes. “That’s what we want," said Demika Poole, director of special projects for Special Olympics. "We want that interaction and for them to be in the front and not in the background.”

Image: Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run

Athletes won’t merely be part of the crowd during the race, but they’ll address the participants with a microphone on stage, recite the Special Olympics oath and attend the VIP reception.

“That’s very important because that’s what it’s all about: connecting athletes with their communities and breaking down stereotypes,” said Demika Poole, director of special projects for Special Olympics. “That’s what we want. We want that interaction and for them to be in the front and not in the background.”

Poole shared her perspective on the race, describing how the runners embrace the vibe and atmosphere of the day by saying, “They come early, so you have to be able to rock and roll when they get there.” Poole works with volunteers, usually seeing things unfold from the back as she and others hand out T-shirts, answer questions and ensure everyone is ready to go.

Poole helps coordinate more than 50 volunteers, who also assist with hanging signs and being on the Beaver Stadium turf to make sure everyone keeps in their appropriate lanes and stays safe. Penn State students are part of the day and serve on the volunteer committee, with Poole saying, “I appreciate that so many volunteers from the Penn State community help out.”

The Beaver Stadium Run enjoys a healthy competition with the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Plunge for the biggest annual fundraising event, with Paterno calling the friendly rivalry “a win-win for Special Olympics Pennsylvania.” She regularly works with sponsors to continually increase awareness and support for the Beaver Stadium Run and the organization it benefits, saying it’s important to think of new and better ways to raise money, adding she gets back more than she gives with her volunteerism.  

The reason Paterno emphasizes the fundraising aspect is because, as she said, “Special Olympics is one nonprofit we can’t afford to lose, because there are so many people with mental disabilities across the world.”

Paterno has been busy lining up sponsors and fundraising. As soon as she hears the total amount raised, her immediate thoughts turn to how can they raise even more money the following year, she said.

There’s a good mix of volunteers, Paterno said, with students and faculty members coming together and working with the athletes on race day.

That selfless people have been the catalyst for the Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run’s continuing positive impact probably isn’t a coincidence: Rallying together for a cause is easy when you’re surrounded by people who inspire you.

“She's inspirational, and she's just so down-to-earth,” Poole said about Paterno. “It’s been a pleasure working for this organization and with her because she always makes you laugh and smile. There’s something about her that’s inviting, and caring and genuine.”

To register for the Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run, click here. Note: Previous participants will need to create a new profile.

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Last Updated April 13, 2015