Donna Oleari quickly became interested in advocacy and special needs education when she learned that her youngest son, Jack, had Down Syndrome.
“While you are educating yourself on a subject, you should be teaching others. No one should later be in the same boat as you,” said Oleari, who now devotes much of her time to helping children with disabilities and their families.
She had previously worked for a child and family support organization, helping families with children with disabilities to find services. After working there for 10 years, Oleari decided to start her own non-profit organization with a similar goal of helping both children and adults with special needs.
“It was important to me to be able to work with people who are not going to get the services, the advice, the help, the resources… that’s why we now have our own non-profit organization: Philotimo Charity. In Greek, loosely translated, it means ‘a friend who does the right thing,'” Oleari said.
Two of the major projects Oleari is involved with are Morgan County Special Olympics and the special needs prom night, Night to Remember.
The Oleari family moved to Fort Morgan from their ranch in rural South Dakota after Jack graduated from high school in 2014 in hopes they would get closer to activities like Special Olympics teams.
“Then we came here and unfortunately found that nothing was going on. There were no Special Olympics for those who didn’t go to school (and) no organizations that ran them for school age (children),” Oleari said.
After about a year on the phone to try and join a Special Olympics team, Oleari decided to take matters into her own hands. Tired of being forwarded to different phone numbers, she decided to start Morgan County Special Olympics herself.
The team started with just three athletes but has now grown to 20 – all from Morgan County. They go bowling, play softball, and play basketball. They even have local law enforcement officers participate in a scrimmage at basketball games every year.
“There is always something based on the needs of the community. It’s not just about my son. Even when my son was in school, they asked me: ‘What should he learn?’ I said, ‘I want him to learn to live in the world he was born in.’ It’s about making the community better for everyone, not just my son,” Oleari said.
Along with Special Olympics, Oleari is one of the key organizers for a special needs prom night. For many years, the Night to Shine event was directly associated with the Tim Tebow Foundation. This year, however, Oleari renamed the event “Night to Remember” to hold it in person. Since the “Night to Shine” event takes place worldwide, it should take place virtually in 2022.
Oleari had witnessed how isolating the pandemic had been for special needs children and their families, so she prioritized an in-person event. Guests from Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and throughout Colorado travel to Fort Morgan High School for the event each year.
For the first year the event was held, Oleari struggled to find a venue as they grew more and more out of them. By 2021, the numbers had continued to grow each year. In 2020 there were 485 participants.
“If you do it right, people should feel loved and accepted. Not just a dance, but life,” Oleari said.
She credits her six members of the Night to Remember committee with helping make the event a success every year. She also thanked the community for their continued support and her husband Giddeon for being her “biggest supporter, (her) biggest cheerleader and (her) sanity in all of this.”
Next, Oleari will work to form parent support groups specifically for parents of special needs children. She sees the “undeniable need” and currently conducts three to five parent calls a day when a parent needs to vent or just speak to someone who can understand the specific difficulties of raising a child with special needs.
Oleari is always open to people’s suggestions, thoughts and opinions on what works well and what doesn’t work well. She encourages anyone in the community who would like to get involved as a volunteer, parent, or athlete to email her at [email protected]