Special Olympics Global Youth Leaders use Microsoft Teams to build a global community and shape the future

30 Jan 2021

When Grace, a Special Olympics athlete and global youth leader from New Zealand, heard that a friend of hers had to miss a long-awaited competition due to transportation issues, her response was to help build an app that ensured other athletes wouldn’t run into similar problems. She teamed up with fellow global youth leader Jack, and then the duo got to work on their project designed to connect Special Olympics athletes with transportation. And, when COVID-19 threatened to stall the project’s momentum, the pair quickly turned to Microsoft Teams to collaborate and continue developing their app, making sure their inclusive initiative didn’t miss a beat.

Special Olympics has a 50-year history of championing inclusion through sport, providing year-round athletic training and hosting sports competitions for people with intellectual disabilities. Across 200 countries on every continent, the organization’s network of more than 1 million volunteers works tirelessly to build a more inclusive world. At the forefront of this movement, Special Olympics Global Youth Leaders with and without intellectual disabilities are bringing the vision of an inclusive world to life in their schools and communities. Global youth leaders like Grace and Jack make up the global group of dynamic change agents. Today, these young advocates use Microsoft Teams to connect with their peers and help shape the future of their communities.

“Special Olympics is a movement that focuses on bringing people together,” says Kaitlyn Hamrick, Senior Manager for the Global Youth Program at Special Olympics. “Our global youth leaders are empowered to connect with their peers from around the globe and drive change in their communities, and many of them use Microsoft Teams to do just that.”

Global collaboration helps a movement gain momentum

For Special Olympics, global collaboration is nothing new, but the way global youth leaders from across the world work together has transformed along with their new digital tools. Today, digital collaboration tools help supplement the in-person meetings Special Olympics has hosted for much of its history. Teams stood out as a fit for the global youth leadership program in part because it could help connect a geographically dispersed network of global youth leaders across a wide variety of languages and technological circumstances. Now, global youth leaders can use Teams to collaborate and build their initiatives in an inclusive and highly secure digital space. From video meetings to chat to file sharing, participants in different time zones can always find a way to contribute to the discussion. “Global youth leaders from around the world are using Teams to build community,” says Hamrick.

For global youth leader Catalina from Special Olympics Argentina, her involvement with the organization created a sense of purpose and a fresh outlook. “Special Olympics changed my life, because it gave me a new perspective, a new way of seeing the world, which is through the eyes of inclusion.” For Cintia, a fellow global youth leader from Special Olympics Argentina, inclusion boils down to mutual respect. “For me, inclusion means all people with and without disabilities can live together and respect each other,” she says. By using Teams, global youth leaders like Cintia and Catalina are finding new ways to share their perspectives and create change.

Creating change in communities around the world

Special Olympics is devoted to creating connections and uniting individuals from different walks of life to create a more inclusive world. For Special Olympics Global Youth Leaders, Teams aligns with the program’s values and supports modern, dynamic ways of working across a global network. At its core, Special Olympics is a movement based on empowering individuals to create change in their communities. “Special Olympics owes its success over the last 50 years to individuals who stand up for inclusion,” says Hamrick. “Today, our community of global youth leaders are connecting with their peers across the globe who share a commitment to change.” Using Teams, Special Olympics Global Youth Leaders are working hard to make the world a more inclusive place.

Global youth leadership initiatives thrive in Teams

Global youth leaders from around the world are empowered to organize projects that raise awareness of the Special Olympics mission of inclusivity. Communities across the globe benefit from the social impact these global youth leaders create through their initiatives that are supported by the connections happening in Teams. At Special Olympics Albania, global youth leaders Ina and Agjellos used Teams as a collaboration hub so they could work together to increase Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® programming across the country, which aims to give young people the tools and training they need to build environments of inclusion. Ina and Agjellos’s initiative worked to bring about systemic change and create a climate of inclusivity through the foundation of sports. These global youth leaders brought five schools together in Teams to teach best practices on promoting inclusion and healthy lifestyles through sports while helping shape education in Albania.

Grace and Jack, the global youth leaders from Special Olympics New Zealand who collaborated in Teams to help develop a transportation app, see digital tools as a key part of supporting Special Olympics athletes. “Our app helps Special Olympics athletes feel included because it brings them closer together,” says Jack. “It means they don’t have to be at home by themselves. It means they don’t have to rely on friends and family members to take them places that is out of their way.” Working together to make their project a reality in spite of the unexpected challenges brought on by COVID-19 is an achievement in itself. “What I’ve learned about myself while working on this project is that I can keep positive and determined throughout the difficulties we may face,” says Grace. Ultimately, Jack and Grace used Teams to create a valuable resource for their fellow Special Olympics athletes in spite of the added challenge of COVID-19. “Teams allows us to still work together when we can’t be together,” says Jack. “It’s been amazing still being able to move forward and work on our project ….”

Similarly, global youth leaders from Special Olympics Argentina used Teams to engage with fellow global youth leaders safely while complying with COVID-19 restrictions. Global youth leaders Catalina and Cintia use the Teams app to host biweekly meetings designed to keep participants motivated and healthy during the pandemic. “Many [Special Olympics] athletes were feeling sad or lonely because of the quarantine,” says Catalina. With their project, dubbed “Closer than Ever,” Catalina and Cintia hope to recruit 100 new global youth leaders and provide participants with a sense of community and support in an isolating time. “It’s very important to take care of [Special Olympics] athletes’ physical and mental health,” says Cintia. By using Teams as a digital meeting place to share their passion for inclusion, healthy living, and leadership, Catalina and Cintia have worked together to bring their community closer. “The best thing about being a [global] youth leader is that we are always learning about inclusion,” says Catalina. “We have a duty to bring all this information to society, to teach and pass everything we know.”

Effective crisis management

Suddenly, thousands of employees were now working remotely. This shift put enormous pressure on the Skype for Business platform. Fortunately, the team had anticipated that people might have to work offsite and, just weeks prior, they took steps to prepare the infrastructure for remote access.

This preparation included VPN split tunneling. With split tunneling, critical Microsoft 365 traffic, such as Teams voice and video streams, are able to bypass the VPN, avoiding the risk of infrastructure saturation and dramatically improving performance. Data is encrypted in transit and sent to a trusted Microsoft destination, avoiding security issues while preserving performance. Plus, as Arole adds, “We use a cloud-based proxy that helps protect the clients even when they’re not on-premises.”

But as traffic volumes soared, it soon became clear that more would need to be done.

To better understand the issues involved, the company relied heavily on the Microsoft Call Quality Dashboard (CQD). “We were using CQD every day, multiple times a day—especially around March, when everybody went home,” recalls Arole. “We usually see a 99.5 percent quality rating on our dashboard, and now we were seeing drops, at certain time periods, get down to the lower 90 percent range and even the upper 80 percent range.”

The team dug a bit deeper, looking at Rate My Call (RMC) scores and other anecdotal feedback. This investigation supported the metrics coming out of the CQD. “We were getting continuous reports of dropped calls and people not able to share content. And much of that was related directly to the limitation of the dedicated environment that we were in,” says Arole.

The team acted fast. “We quickly made the decision to move our original Teams deployment schedule ahead four months, from September to April,” explains Arole. The company’s earlier migration work put them in a good position to manage the accelerated timeline. As Arole points out, “The team did an amazing job preparing the infrastructure before the crisis hit.”

But would the company’s employees be ready for the change? They were already managing a major transition to remote work. TMNA was concerned about adding yet another layer of complexity.

The company had a rich library of training material online and was just about to launch onsite training events through a champions network. But now with COVID-19 restrictions in place, this plan had to be modified as well. The company quickly got its champions up to speed, moved to a virtual learning model, and then waited for user feedback.

The plan worked. Users were ready and eager to move to Teams Only mode. One reason in particular stood out: the move to Teams Only would include a superior audio conferencing and calling experience, including Teams Phone for external calls. This news couldn’t have come at a better time. “To our surprise, some of the remote locations that we had scheduled for later in the rollout plan called us to ask if they could move to Teams even sooner,” says Arole.

Into the future with Teams Only

Thousands of TMNA employees were migrated from Skype for Business to Teams over three weekends. The process was mostly automated with approximately 10,000 users migrated at a time, starting with the larger offices, then moving to smaller, regional sites.

Users experienced an immediate jump in performance—and the metrics proved it. “Teams Phone quality has been phenomenal,” says Brian Callahan, Manager of Network & Collaboration Platforms, TMNA. “Our RMC scores since implementation have consistently been 4.8 to 4.9 out of 5. With Skype for Business, we were closer to 4.1—that’s an amazing jump.” Callahan adds that he believes call scores could be even higher when they filter out remote factors like poor internet connections at home.

As TMNA continues to reap the benefits of Teams for remote work, it is also looking to get even more value from Teams when employees return to the workplace. The dynamic emergency calling feature, for example, is now in place. All meeting rooms are now Teams-ready.

There are even plans to deploy Teams to other parts of the company where Skype for Business wasn’t available. That includes old desk phone systems, which the company is planning to standardize on Microsoft Teams with Teams Phone. The company is even considering phasing out technologies like its old paging systems in favor of Teams-driven devices. “The more we can take advantage of Teams across all our communication channels, the better,” says Arole.


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