WILDWOOD — About six years ago, brothers Elijah and Brenden Quinn joined a Special Olympics New Jersey basketball team, a decision their mother says helped them learn sportsmanship and teamwork.

At the Wildwoods Convention Center, the two from the Sewell section of Manuta Township, Gloucester County, proudly donned silver medals around their necks.

The tournament, which attracted 700 athletes and coaches, came days after a fight erupted in Washington, D.C., to stop the Trump administration from slashing federal funding for the national program. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos fed a media firestorm last week when she defended $17.6 million in cuts to the Special Olympics, as part of a 10 percent reduction in the Education Department’s budget.

President Donald Trump reversed the department’s plan Friday, but the damage was done for parents and volunteers standing on the sidelines in Wildwood over the weekend.

“You can’t do that to these kids,” said Elijah and Brenden’s mother, Anna. “It’s one thing to take something away from you and I. We can deal with it. But kids that can’t even fight for themselves. ... What kind of person takes away from a special needs kid?”

Brenden Quinn, 30, said he scored points in a game he played on Saturday, giving him a sense of pride. His favorite part of the game is simple though: “Friends.”

Like others, this wasn’t Quinn’s first Special Olympics. Most start at a young age and continue for years and even decades.

Bruce Mathews, a retired officer, has been attending events for the past 30 years, when his special-needs daughter became a track athlete in the program.

The first time he attended the Special Olympics was at William Paterson University when his daughter was 8, and he recalls getting “sucked in” by the energy.

“I’m glad (the funding) went through,” he said.

Organizers of the Wildwood Special Olympics event declined to comment on last week’s tense debate on Capitol Hill, but agreed all money that supports the Special Olympics goes toward a good cause.

Federal funding for the Special Olympics goes to the national program and is trickled down to state chapters. For the past few years, Special Olympics New Jersey received $200,000 to $300,000 annually.

That money goes toward the Unified Champion Schools initiative, a club some schools adopt to bring together people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams. It’s in several South Jersey schools, including Mainland Regional High School, Hammonton High School, Galloway Middle School and Cedar Creek High School.

Carmen Bannon, chief program development officer, said he joined the Special Olympics 15 years ago, looking for a fulfilling way to spend his down time when not working as a salesman.

Since then, he’s watched hundreds of kids grow into adults and become more confident. One of the first athletes he met, he said, was a girl named Brooke who spoke with her eyes to the floor, he said. Now, she’s more self-assured and does speeches for the program.

“She’s truly found herself,” he said. “Her dream job is to work with Special Olympics.”

Contact: 609-272-7258 azoppo@pressofac.com Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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