Even at 4-11 (and the Athletic Department at USM has always been generous with its student-athletes' height) former Husky student-athlete and University of Southern Maine Class of 2017 Exercise Science graduate Lauren Lessard has had a big presence – on the field, in the classroom and in the community.
During her time at the University of Southern Maine, Lessard never allowed herself much down time and kept herself busy as a student-athlete, member of the Huskies' Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Resident Assistant and Teaching Assistant – all while holding down a part-time job off campus at an athletic performance center.
With so many responsibilities on top of a full course load as an undergraduate, just fulfilling the bare minimum requirement for each role would be remarkable; however, Lessard was anything but mediocre during her time as a Southern Maine student-athlete.
Lessard's list of achievements and accolades are lengthy and well-deserved. In each of her roles, Lessard excelled and assumed leadership positions. As a member of the Huskies' lacrosse team, Lessard was an All-Little East Conference midfielder and a three-year captain. As a student, Lessard not only helped create an inclusive environment as a Resident Assistant, but helped her classmates academically serving as Teaching Assistant in chemistry with Dr. Searles, earned Dean's List honors, was a four-time William B. Wise Scholar Athlete, and received Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches' Association (IWLCA) All-Academic Team recognition all while completing her practicum hours and fulfilling an internship with Special Olympics Maine. In her final year, Lessard was also recognized by the University and Athletic Department with its Senior Husky Achievement Award and Paula D. Hodgdon Leadership Award.
And as a member of the Huskies' SAAC, Lessard served as the student organization's president and was a driving force in the creation and implementation of the Huskies' Unified Sports Program and strengthened partnership with Special Olympics Maine. Since its creation, the Huskies' Unified Sports Program has grown in participation and breadth, and in 2019 was recognized nationally from NADIIIAA (National Association of Division III Athletic Administrators) with its top Community Service award.
Since her graduation in 2017, Lessard has not slowed down. And recently completed her Master's degree in Therapeutic Recreation Management.
"During my internship with Special Olympics Maine and through my work with SAAC and the creation of our Huskies' Unified Sports Program, I was able to find my passion and career path," said Lessard. "During my senior year at Southern Maine, I explored graduate programs in New England that would allow me to continue my education in recreational therapy, but also incorporate a sport management curriculum and Springfield was the best choice. I applied and was fortunate enough to also earn a Graduate Assistantship with the Chair of the Therapeutic Recreation Management program, Kevin McAlister."
Taking five classes a semester to finish out her grad program early, coaching women's lacrosse part-time at a nearby college, Lessard also managed to find time to work with the local Special Olympics program coordinating a volleyball tournament at Springfield College, while volunteering with local adaptive sports programs, and getting experience with the American Hockey League.
And now with her Master's degree and cumulative experience in hand, Lessard is returning home to Maine after recently accepting the position as Program Director for Special Olympics Maine – a role she will assume full-time in August. In the meantime, Lessard is serving as the Assistant Program Director and learning from outgoing Program Director and long-time leader in the Special Olympics field Mark Capano.
"Working with Mark as an intern and now as Assistant Director is a great way to learn from the best and to learn the job – I think will be a great way to transition into the leadership role once Mark retires in August," said Lessard.
Invested in promoting inclusion and diversity through sport since her undergraduate experiences at USM, Lessard is looking forward to growing the program offerings and participation in her new role at Special Olympics Maine. With approximately 4500 Special Olympic athletes participating in programs state-wide, Lessard says while those numbers are good there are a many more potential athletes out there that can benefit from sport participation, as well as organizations that could be valuable partners in that growth.
"I've seen first-hand the impact participation can have on a Special Olympian," said Lessard. "Through my internship and then again when we started the Huskies' Unified Sports Program, the relationships built, and the visceral surge in confidence among the athletes are gratifying."
However, Lessard also notes that the Special Olympians participating in these programs are not the only group benefitting from these interactions.
"I remember one of our early skills and drills sessions with the Huskies' Unified Sports programs. We only had a handful of participants, and one of our SAAC officers, Matt Bender (a former USM baseball player) was working one-on-one with an athlete to help them through a particular skill. Matt was really invested in figuring out a way to adapt this sports skill to the athlete and when both Matt and the athlete were ecstatic. Witnessing someone's reaction to working along someone with an intellectual disability for the first time, and seeing how fulfilled they are – it's is something both parties will remember forever."
The Huskies' Unified Sports Program grew organically out of Lessard's internship with Special Olympics Maine and her involvement with SAAC. Noting the benefits of sport and wanting to encourage greater participation opportunities for all involved, Lessard worked closely with SAAC Advisor and head women's basketball coach Samantha Allen and her current mentor Mark Capano to help initiate the program.
"SAAC has always been involved in the community, and Sam and Mark knew that if done properly it would be a great partnership with our student-athletes and Special Olympians in Cumberland County."
Photo: Lessard giving an interview at Springfield College as the host and coordinator for a Special Olympics Volleyball Tournament.
Lessard's impact on the Athletic Department and its Student-Athlete Advisory Committee is far-reaching, and long-lasting. This fall, USM's SAAC earned the inaugural community service award for Special Olympics Activity from the National Association of Division III Athletic Administrators (NADIIIAA) – the first time that USM SAAC has won outright for its community-service related activities – earning a $750 contribution towards the University's general scholarship fund from NADIIIAA in the process.
"We were fortunate to have a student-leader like Lauren set the tone within our learning community," said Allen. "Lauren's legacy of hard-work, leadership, and community-service oriented initiatives directly impacted SAAC during her time as a Husky, and her guidance and influence was essential to the creation and development of our Unified Sports Program. It has been a great joy to see Lauren's career blossom since her graduation, from her work in grad school with Springfield College for the 50thAnniversary with of Special Olympics to her current role as she moves forward within the Special Olympics Maine community."
Lessard, and Huskies' SAAC have continued their partnership helping Special Olympics Maine basketball coaches. Recently, Lessard, Allen and members of the women's basketball team came together to host a Special Olympics Maine coaching clinic. Volunteers and coaches for any of the Special Olympic sports offerings (soccer, basketball, swimming, track & field) are required to earn certifications.
During the clinic, USM women's basketball players and its coaching staff demonstrated skills, and gave tips on hour to instruct and prepare their athletes from fundamental skill development, practice planning to building team concepts.
"It was a great opportunity to give back to those who are working closely with these athletes," said Allen. "As a group we are looking forward to volunteering at the March 23 Special Olympics basketball tournament."
With 4500 Special Olympians competing in the State of Maine, one of Lessard's primary goals is to recruit and establish certified coaches and volunteers while administering a year-long sports training and competition program for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
"We are always looking for volunteers," said Lessard. "I am very grateful for our established relationships and the vital and essential attributes they bring to our programming. Obviously, the programs with University of Southern Maine Athletics are near and dear to my heart. USM, especially the Department of Athletics, helped shape my future, and hone my leadership skills. Participation in athletics is a game-changer – no pun intended – and I am fortunate to embark on a career that makes athletic pursuits accessible for all."
If you are interested in volunteering with Special Olympics Maine, you can learn more at: www.somaine.org
Special Olympics Maine has a pair of upcoming events early this spring, including the March 23 Southern Maine Special Olympics Basketball Tournament hosted annually at USM's Costello Sports Field House and Hill Gymnasium. On April 10-11, Special Olympics Maine will also be hosting its State Swim Meet at Bates College.
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