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The Power of Community Involvement: Experiences of Volunteers at a Paralympic Experience Event.


Community involvement experiences for college students support student growth through knowledge and skill acquisition, while also providing services to the community (Butin, 2010). Following the engaged scholarship model, students who participate in community based learning activities show gains in personal, interpersonal, skill, and career development (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001). This type of student learning follows the instructional approach of academic community engagement (Butin, 2010). Direct interaction with community members often links to Allport's (1954) contact theory, as in many cases, students experience meaningful interactions with community members who are different from themselves. Involvement may include volunteering, community service, community outreach, service-learning, and internships.

A number of studies have documented the benefits of participation in volunteer and service related experiences for college students. Gray, Ondaatje, and Zakaras (1999) reported feelings of satisfaction, and positive feelings related to providing a valuable service to the community. Several studies reported positive effects on personal development of students, including efficacy, moral development, identity, and spiritual growth (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Eyler et al., 2001; Moely, Mercer, Ilustre, Miron, & McFarland, 2002). Simons and Cleary (2006) reported improvements in diversity and political awareness, as well as academic and personal benefits from engaging in service. Finally, attitude change and developing tolerance toward individuals with disabilities have been reported as benefits of service learning and volunteerism engagement activities (Burns, Storey, & Cetro, 1999; Roper & Santiago, 2014).

The purpose of this study was to examine volunteer knowledge, perception, and motivation before a disability sport-related community engagement event, and then to examine the personal gains and experiences of the volunteers as a result of taking part in the experience. This pre-post experimental design allowed the authors to add to the current body of research associated with disability sport-related engagement experiences in higher education in a meaningful manner.



Individuals registered as volunteers for the Paralympic Experience event were invited to participate in this study. Eighteen responses were recorded, with seven being discarded because of missing or incomplete data. Participants include nine female and two male (n = 11) graduate students whom were enrolled in physical therapy, occupational therapy, sport leadership, and education programs. The participants were selected as a result of willingness to participate and therefore represented a convenient sample. Participants ranged in age from 22 to 53 years (M = 31.9, SD = 12.8). Two (n = 2) of the participants identified with having a disability. Five (n = 5) of the participants reported volunteering as part of a class project or class requirement. The treatment of participants was in accordance with the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association. Permission to conduct the study was granted by the Institutional Review Board at the primary researcher's university.

Paralympic Experience Event

The Paralympic Experience event was planned and executed by Sportable, a values-guided not for profit organization located in Richmond, Virginia. Recognized as a Silver Level Paralympic Sport Club by the United States Paralympics, Sportable is one of three Paralympic Sport Clubs in Virginia, and one of four chapters of Disabled Sports USA in Virginia. Sportable offers year round programming in twelve different adapted sports, school based education sessions on diversity and disability awareness, and a variety of special events geared toward empowerment and education. The Paralympic Experience event is a celebration of Paralympic Sport, designed to show individuals with physical and visual disabilities how participation in sport and living a healthy, active lifestyle can have a profoundly positive impact on their lives. Individuals with physical disabilities and visual impairments, as well as community members of all ages, were invited to try a variety of adapted sports (e.g., wheelchair basketball, goalball, sitting volleyball) first hand. Participants and volunteers were able to meet and learn from current and former Paralympians at the stations, as well as hear a personal message from a former Paralympian who served as a guest speaker. The event was approximately two hours long.

Data Collection

Data for this study were collected in the form of descriptive pre-post study questionnaire responses. One week before the Paralympic Experience event, pre-surveys were sent electronically to all registered participants through a Qualtrics link. The pre-survey link was available up to the start of the event. Immediately following the event, post-surveys were sent electronically to all registered participants through a Qualtrics link. Post-surveys were available for one week following the event. Responses took approximately 5-8 minutes to complete.

Data Analysis

After data collection commenced, all electronic data was entered into an excel spreadsheet. Data from short-response open-ended questions (for example, did you find anything not to be a good experience?) were analyzed descriptively, using frequencies and percentages (Haegele, Lee, & Porretta, 2015). Several questions, those which asked participants to elaborate and provide follow-up descriptions to support closed-ended answers (for example, do you think your opinion of Paralympic sport has changed? How?) warranted additional analyses and a content-analysis inductive process was utilized. Specifically, responses were entered into an Excel spreadsheet and organized into themes. A description of each theme and the frequency of the responses in each theme, are displayed.


Results are provided in two sections representing opinions of the participants before and after experiencing the Paralympic Experience event. Demographic data that was obtained from the questionnaire is presented in the methods section and, therefore, is absent from the results section.

Before Paralympic Experience Event

When asked to explain what they knew about Paralympic sport, 5 of the 11 participants (45%) provided an accurate depiction including the descriptions of it being sport/ competition for individuals with physical disabilities. One participant (9%) stated that Paralympic sports were both competitive yet underrepresented. An additional participant suggested that Paralympic sport provided opportunities for "all individuals of any physical, cognitive, or intellectual disorder" an opportunity to participate, which was deemed incorrect because she included disability categories outside of the scope of Paralympic sport. Lastly, four participants (36%) reported knowing very little to nothing about Paralympic sport.

Participants were asked to describe what comes to mind when they thought of Paralympic sport. Of the 11 participants, seven participants briefly stated 'Paralympic games' or listed various sports that are played at the Paralympics (e.g., wheelchair rugby, track and field). Two participants described the meaning they ascribed to the games, where one participant reported "strength and perseverance" and another suggested that the games provided "opportunities for individuals with disabilities to participate in a sport that can boost confidence, increase self-worth and help them focus on their abilities". An additional person reported that when they think about Paralympic sport, they think about equal opportunities and the use of adapted equipment.

Most of the participants (10 of 11; 91%) reported generally positive attitudes toward Paralympic sport. Of those, several provided some explanation as to why they have positive attitudes, including "I have a great attitude because I already work with people with disabilities", "I think Paralympic sports are awesome because I like to think about people having special abilities rather than disabilities" and "I think highly of the athletes and enjoy watching and seeing how people with different physical abilities participate in sports and lead active lives." Only one participant (9%) reported an attitude that was not considered generally positive, who stated that she felt "ignorant". Table 1 provides insights into why participant decided to register for the Paralympic Experience and what they expected to get out of their participation.

After Paralympic Experience Event

After the culmination of the Paralympic Experience event, eight of the 11 participants (73%) stated that their opinion of Paralympic sport changed because of their experience. Of those eight, four stated that their opinions changed because of how impressed they were with the athletes and their abilities, one was impressed by the level of competition, one reported not previously knowing about the number of potential activities that are involved in the Paralympics, and one learned about how minimal accommodations can lead to enhanced abilities. Three participants (27%) reported that their opinion did not change. Of those, one stated that they already had a positive view toward Paralympic athletes, one stated that the experience met his expectations, and the last said that her opinion did not change, but she did learn a lot from the experience. Overall, each participant (100%) reported that the experience was positive and appreciated the ability to engage in different sports. One participant, though, did suggest that she wished more individuals with disabilities would have been present as she "didn't feel like a big help because the number of volunteers far outweighed the number of athletes". In addition, all participants stated that they would play Paralympic sports again, and Table 2 displays which sports were most favored.

When asked if the experience changed the participants' views of individuals with disabilities, six (55%) explicitly stated that it had. Other participants did not directly answer the prompt with a yes or no, but stated that through the experience, they "realized that disability should not take away their right to be competitive athletes" or "strengthened my view even more that a disability doesn't mean you can't excel." Three participants stated that this experience did not change their view toward individuals with disabilities. However, this was due to previously positive views of those with disabilities. One participant explained that "I think I already had a good mindset regarding people with disabilities, but this event just ensured my thought that these are just people with different abilities."

Participants were asked several questions related to their opinions about the experience and how the experience would be remembered going forward. Table 3 summarizes participant opinions of positive and negative attributes of the experience. All participants (11 of 11) reported that the inclusion of the Paralympic athletes in the experience enhanced the experience. For example, participants reported that "I thought it enhanced my experience. I loved seeing people fiercely compete", "It was great to hear the personal stories of some of the Paralympic athletes" and, "Hearing [one of the athletes] speak was incredible. Her story was inspiring for all participants and she was great at teaching individuals how to participate in the games". Likewise, participants reported positive instances when asked what would be most memorable about their experiences. Of those, six (55%) noted that they would most remember the people and how happy they were during the program, four (36%) noted that they would remember various sports (e.g., goalball), and 1 (9%) reported that he would remember the experience as a whole.


The purpose of this study was to examine volunteer knowledge, perception, and motivation before a disability sport-related community engagement event, and then to examine the personal gains and experiences of the volunteers as a result of taking part in the experience. Attitude and opinion change, growth in knowledge, and the power of contact are indicated in the analysis of the volunteer experience. Participant attitudes started off generally positive (91%), with the majority of participants indicating a positive growth in attitude as a result of the volunteer experience (53%). This concept of attitudes going from good to great is aligned with research conducted by McKay, Block, and Park (2015), where pretest/posttest surveys indicated attitudes starting at a relatively high level, and then moving to an even higher level. Opinions about Paralympic Sport indicated a positive change (73%), as growth in knowledge and experience with a variety of sports was described through the after-event responses. The power of contact highlighted through the participant experiences is aligned with Allport's (1954) contact theory, which states that our stereotypical associations and biases will decrease as we get to know and understand the experiences of others through meaningful, equal status, and collaborative contact. All of the participants (100%) reported that the inclusion of Paralympic athletes enhanced the experience, including hearing their stories, interacting on an individual basis, and experiencing the Paralympians as station leaders and educators. Paralympic sport education research draws a direct connection to Allport's contact theory, and the power that contact with Paralympians has on individuals without disabilities (Liu, Kudlacek, & Jesina, 2010; McKay et al., 2015; McKay, 2013; Xafopoulos, Kudlacek, & Evaggelinou, 2009).

The study was limited in several ways. Nine of the eleven participants identified as female. It is possible that the findings may have been influenced by the gender of the participants. Specific information was not gathered related to the academic level of the participants (undergraduate or graduate programs), and may serve to inform how coursework and academic preparation influenced responses on the survey questions. The study did not discern between service learning and volunteerism, in terms of the participants being required to complete service hours as part of course objectives. Service learning experiences incorporate a reflective component, which may have impacted participant responses (Roper & Santiago, 2014).


Academic community engagement (Butin, 2010) supports student growth while also providing services to the community. One example of engagement is through a Paralympic sport experience event. The findings of this study indicate that volunteering at a Paralympic sport experience can have a positive impact on attitudes and opinions toward disability sport, while also providing an environment to learn new skills, and interact one on one with Paralympic athletes. The power of meaningful contact was indicated and supported, as was the overall positive experience in this community engagement event.

For more information about Sportable, go to


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Burns, M., Storey, K., & Cetro, N.J. (1999). Effect of service learning on attitudes toward students with severe disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 24(1), 56-65.

Butin, D. (2010). Service-learning in theory and practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Eyler, J.S., & Giles, D. E. (1999). Where's the learning in service learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eyler, J. S., Giles, D. E., Stenson, C. M., & Gray, C. J. (2001). At a glance: What we know about the effects of service-learning on college students, faculty, institutions, and communities, 1993-2000: Third Edition. [N.p.]: Corporation for National Service Learn and Serve America National Service Learning Clearinghouse.

Gray, M., Ondaage, E., & Zakaras, L. (1999). Combining service and learning in higher education: Summary report. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Haegele, J.A., Lee, J., & Porretta, D.L. (2015). Research trends in Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly from 2004 to 2013. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 32(3), 187-205. doi:10.1123/APAQ.2014-0232

Liu, Y., Kudlacek, Y., & Jesina, O. (2010). The influence of Paralympic School Day on children's attitudes towards people with disabilities. Acta Universitatis Palackianae Olomucensis. Gymnica, 40(2), 63-69.

McKay, C. (2013). Paralympic School Day: A disability awareness and education program. Palaestra, 27(4), 14-19.

McKay, C., Block, M.E., & Park, J.Y. (2015). The effect of Paralympic School Day on attitudes toward inclusion in physical education. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 32(4). 331-348.

Moely, B.E., McFarland, M., Miron, D., Mercer, D., & Illustre, V. (2002). Changes in college students' attitudes and intentions for civic involvement as a function of service learning experiences. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 9(1), 18-26.

Roper, E.A. and Santiago, J.A. (2014). Influence of service learning on kinesiology students' attitudes toward P-12 students with disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 31(2), 162-180.

Simons, L., & Cleary, B. (2006). The influence of service learning on students' personal and social development. College Teaching, 54(4), 307-319.

Xafopoulos, G., Kudlacek, M., & Evaggelinou, C. (2009). Effect of the intervention program "Paralympic School Day" on attitudes of children attending international school towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Acta Universitatis Palackianae Olomucensis. Gymnica, 39(4), 63-71.

Cathy McKay, Ed.D., CAPE, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at James Madison University

Alyssa Formica, MAT, is a recent graduate of James Madison University, Department of Kinesiology Physical and Health Teacher Education (PHETE) Graduate program.

Justin Haegele, Ph.D., CAPE, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Movement Sciences at Old Dominion University.
Table 1. Reasons for registering and expectations for the event.

Why did you register?       Frequency      What did you expect?

Class Requirement           4 (36%)        Learn about adapted sport
New Learning Experience/    4 (36%)        Learn about people with
 Learn about Paralympics                    disabilities
Enjoy Volunteering/         3 (27%)        Help others
 Helping Others                            Fun

Why did you register?      Frequency

Class Requirement          7 (64%)
New Learning Experience/   2 (18%)
 Learn about Paralympics
Enjoy Volunteering/        1 (9%)
 Helping Others            1 (9%)

Table 2. Most favored sports among participants.

Most Favored Sports             Frequency (n)   Percentage (%)

Wheelchair Basketball                 4              36%
Sitting Volleyball                    3              27%
Favored All Sports                    2              18%
Wheelchair Tennis                     2              18%
Biking                                1               9%

Note: Frequency and percentages exceed expected
maximums because some participants reported
responses that were coded multiple times.

Table 3. Positive and negative attributes of the Paralympic Experience

Positives about the              Frequency   Negatives about the
Experience                       (%)         Experience

Fellowship among participants/   4 (36%)     No negatives reported
Speakers/ Paralympians present   3 (27%)     More people with
                                              disabilities needed
How talented the athletes were   1 (9%)      Confusion among volunteers
                                              and assignments
Inclusiveness of those with      1 (9%)      More room for activities
 and without disabilities                     needed
Kindness of the hosts/                       Some participants were
 staff                                       not successful or having
                                             fun, but no help was

Positive outlook on              1 (9%)
Wheelchair basketball            1 (9%)

Positives about the             Frequency
Experience                      (Percentage)

Fellowship among participants/  6 (55%)
Speakers/ Paralympians present  2 (18%)

How talented the athletes were  1 (9%)

Inclusiveness of those with     1 (9%)
 and without disabilities
Kindness of the hosts/
 staff                          1 (9%)

Positive outlook on
Wheelchair basketball

Note: Frequency and percentages exceed expected maximums
because some participants reported responses that were
coded multiple times.
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Author:McKay, Cathy; Formica, Alyssa; Haegele, Justin
Publication:VAHPERD Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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