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SwampDogs Foster Inclusion and Respect through Special Olympics Internship

Brian Bennett didn't know he had a disability until he was 15.

The middle child in a family of five, Brian (born Gregory Brian Bennett) grew up doing the same things as his brothers and sisters, he said. He played sports in elementary school, joined the junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps in middle school, and helped keep stats for the basketball team in high school.

For Brian, who has limited use of the left side of his body due to cerebral palsy, there was never any reason to suspect he was different from anyone else. His parents, Greg and Gloria Bennett, taught him to adapt. He learned to use his left side to do as much as it could while adjusting his daily routine when needed.

"We taught him [his left hand] doesn't work like [his right] hand, but what use you can get out of it, we're going to make it work," Gloria said. "It was never really a disability, it was just a challenge." 

One of those challenges was finding a stable place in the workforce. The 37-year-old has worked a few odd jobs in his life, but he never got the respect he deserved for his hard work, he said. Until he came to the SwampDogs, that is. In the six years since Brian first joined the team, he has had the opportunity to show his passion and receive the respect and appreciation everyone deserves.

Brian is just one example of the many lives the SwampDogs have touched through the team's partnership with Special Olympics Cumberland County. Through the Special Olympics Internship presented by Dr. Carol Wadon and Dr. Bruce Jauffmann, the team provides an opportunity for Cumberland County residents with intellectual disabilities to learn responsibility and develop skills in a supportive environment. Many interns, including Brian, remain with the team as employees who serve a variety of roles on game nights.

"At any point, you can give money to a charity, and that's certainly important," said Jeremy Aagard, the SwampDogs' general manager. "What's special about this internship is that it has a direct positive impact on the livelihood of the participants. So it's more than simply a monetary donation."

The ties between Fayetteville's team and organizations that support those with special needs run deep. Aagard is currently a member of the Special Olympics Cumberland County board, and team owner and Instigator of Fun Lew Handelsman has served on the board of directors of Special Olympics Southern California for more than 20 years.

"I have family members that have special needs, and there is no other charity that I know that inspires people the way Special Olympics does." Handelsman said. "It is more than just charity, it's a movement. A movement that truly helps people with special needs."

The SwampDogs introduced the internship back in 2013, when Aagard approached local Special Olympics coordinator Jamie Scruggins with the idea. Although the plan originally called for one or two interns, the SwampDogs received nearly 20 applicants in that inaugural summer, turning an exciting idea into a yearly mainstay at The Swamp. 

"It continues to be a humbling experience to see everybody so excited about this opportunity, including the family members," Aagard said. "It's an honor to be a part of so many people's growth, both professionally and personally."

This summer, the SwampDogs have a strong group of 18 passionate interns through the program. While Brian is the only full employee this summer, the team had as many as four such workers at one time, with many taking the skills acquired at The Swamp to move on to other careers.

Brian has no such desire to leave though. Even when he suffered a seizure that left him in a coma for 30 days in 2016, all he wanted was to come back to work. After months of taxing rehab and recovery, he returned to the Swamp and continued to show his trademark enthusiasm and professionalism every single day. His parents are so proud of him that they have difficulty getting the words out.

"When he came out of the coma, he had to learn to walk all over again. He went to rehab for two weeks, and then after two weeks he came home and had to go to outpatient rehab for six weeks." Gloria said, fighting off tears. "When he came back the following summer, his job was waiting for him. That really meant a lot to him."

The SwampDogs are thrilled to have him and every community member with intellectual disabilities be a part of the team.

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