It all began in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. She also saw that many children with intellectual disabilities did not have a place to play. She decided to take action.

Soon, Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s vision began to take shape. She held a summer day camp for young people with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard. The goal was to learn what these children could do in sports and other activities – and not dwell on what they could not do.

Special Olympics New Jersey History

This now global movement was given wings by individuals who sought to expand Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s vision into their own backyard. Individuals like Bessie Cutter Perlman, who, after retiring from teaching at The School for the Deaf in Trenton, started sports programming for individuals with intellectual disabilities at the Johnstone Training Center in the late 1960’s.

Concurrently, Al Slootsky and Anthony Infante, both special education teachers, were setting up similar programs for swimmers and runners in Bayonne, NJ.

Formal programming in NJ began in 1969, when six participants from the Bayonne Recreation Department and twelve participants from the E.R. Johnstone Training Center in Bordentown, represented NJ at the Eastern Regional Special Olympics at the University of Maryland.  It was evident after that event that much improvement was needed. The athletes from the Garden State had few uniforms, little equipment and their training was lacking.

Fast forward fifty years and you will find that New Jersey has become one of the premier Special Olympics programs in the world and a leader in the Unified Sports® and Young Athletes™ programs, as well as our own Camp Shriver, that takes place each Summer.

Decades of Impact

Through the power of sport, Special Olympics New Jersey has changed the lives and hopes of thousands of individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout New Jersey, as well as their families and the communities in which they live. Join us in looking back at the last 50 years and learn more about our impact.


Following Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s lead, several NJ educators started swimming and track & field programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Bessie Cutter Perlman and Walter Johnson, who would also become co-state directors, started programming at E.R. Johnston Training Center. Al Slootsky and Anthony Infante started similar programs through the Bayonne Recreation Department. By 1969, New Jersey is represented by 6 participants at the Eastern Regional Special Olympics Games.


After the first State Meet in 1970, fifty athletes competed in the International Special Olympics Games in Chicago. Throughout the decade, athletes would continue to represent New Jersey at the International Games while programming expanded at home. The first Winter Games are held, sports like bowling, ice skating and basketball are officially added, and eleven area programs are certified. There’s also an uptick in interest and support from the Governor’s office with an endorsement for Special Olympics New Jersey.


It’s not just sports that expand in the 80s. Winter and Summer Games grow to be three days long and the First Annual Torch Run takes place with forty officers participating in the 43-mile run from Statue of Liberty State Park to Summer Games at Rutgers. We also welcomed the Professional Insurance Agents of NJ as our first corporate sponsor! By the end of the decade, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Governor Kean attended the Summer Games and thirty-five athletes attend the 1989 International Winter Special Olympics Games. Special Olympics New Jersey had 8,090 athletes and 11,500 volunteers participating in the program.


As we approached our 25th anniversary, the 90s offered many opportunities to put SONJ programs and athletes in the public eye. We hosted International Unified Soccer training with 23 countries in conjunction with the 1994 World Cup, Team USA-NJ was introduced on “The Today Show,” and the “Get Into Our Game” training program attracts 3,200 new athletes. SONJ grows by 12,000 athletes through the 90s, just as the NJ Law Enforcement Torch Run grew across the state and became the second ranking event in the world.


Following in the 90s footsteps of Wheaties box-famous Nancy Filimonczuk, SONJ athletes continue to be stars in the 2000s with limited edition Cheerios and Golden Grahams cereal box features. Christopher Reeve added extra star power to the first SONJ Sports Conference for Athletes by Athletes. The 2000s were also a time of infrastructure growth as the Sports Complex opens in 2002 followed by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Sports & Training Center in 2007. We had to say goodbye to Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 2009, but her legacy carried on and we reached over 21,000 athletes during this period.


Programs took off like never before as the SONJ Sports complex becomes home to the TD Bank Sport Field and hosts the first Unified Soccer Championship. With the help of P.E. teachers and new legislation requiring access to athletics, school-based programs like Young Athletes swell to more than 5,000 participants. By 2014, New Jersey is selected to host the Special Olympics USA Games and sends 269 athletes and Unified Partners to compete in 16 sports. The Annual Torch Run also reaches record heights: they raised $3.9 million in funds and attracted more than 3,000 officers to run through 350 towns.


With a budget of over $8.4 million, Special Olympics New Jersey provides sports training and competition opportunities in 24 sports, along with health screenings, fitness programs, athlete leadership and Unified Program initiatives to 26,000 athletes across New Jersey.  Thousands of lives have been positively impacted on and off the playing fields, thanks to the tremendous corporate, community and individual contributions, as well as the support of over 22,000 volunteers.

Explore Photos Through the Decades

Support the Future

In 2019 Special Olympics New Jersey celebrated fifty years of changing the game and promoting inclusion in the Garden State. Support our future and help us celebrate by Paving the Way for future Special Olympics programming. Individuals and/or groups can leave a permanent legacy or honor a loved one by purchasing a piece of the Sean Nelligan Foundation Tribute Patio.  To learn more about buying a brick, stone or plaque and supporting the future of SONJ, click the button below:

Pave the Way & Support SONJ

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