Special Olympics Missouri athletes are home.
The nonprofit organization held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Training for Life Campus, at 305 Special Olympics Drive — near Christy Drive and Missouri 179 — late Thursday morning.
The campus was designed to train and educate Special Olympics athletes through sports, health and wellness, and leadership, capital campaign chairman Gary Wilbers said.
"Twelve years of planning, organizing and fundraising has come to this moment," Wilbers told more than 200 people gathered outside the shining new structure.
The 32,000-square-foot building on a 16.5-acre former rock quarry site — donated by Farmer Holding Company and Twehous Excavating Company — is the largest Special Olympics home in the world, and it will offer health and wellness screenings and classes as well as year-round sports training for athletes. It is intended to provide leadership opportunities for athletes, coaches, volunteers and staff, according to a news release.
The campus includes a sports arena that features indoor basketball and volleyball courts, space for free health screenings, multimedia conference rooms, a health and fitness center, and administrative offices for Special Olympics Missouri and for Special Olympics Missouri-Central Region.
"Throughout this process and throughout the journey, I've told many donors that we're building this campus not because of the building but because of these athletes," Wilbers said.
Wilbers and others have crisscrossed the state securing funding for the campus, which includes outdoor space for soccer, a four-lane track with a 100-meter straight-away and a half-mile trail.
It is the only Special Olympics campus to offer athletes screening rooms equipped to allow health care professionals to perform examinations. It has hearing, vision, dental and medical exam rooms.
The campus almost didn't materialize in Jefferson City.
In September 2014, SOMO issued a request for proposals from Jefferson City and Columbia for a site for the planned campus. The request was issued after the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce and Jefferson City parks staff began working on a proposal to combine the project with a Parks and Recreation Commission's plan for a multipurpose building. But, in October 2014, the chamber announced it would instead offer a proposal involving a then-unnamed developer who had offered to donate property for the campus.
The final proposal included the property along Missouri 179.
SOMO awarded Jefferson City the campus in January 2015, but said it would not break ground until after it had the capital to build the facility.
It finally broke ground on the $18.5 million campus in May 2017.
With the completion of the main campus, SOMO is focused on finding funding for the "Back 9," a $2 million expansion on its northeast end that includes plans for a law enforcement torch run plaza, tennis courts, bocce courts, shot put areas, horseshoe pits, a golf skills area and a softball field.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Special Olympics International games, which were held in Chicago, making it almost fitting that on Thursday, Special Olympics board members, staff, athletes and media got to see the finished campus for the first time, Wilbers said.
"This Training for Life Campus marks the first time a facility has opened that is dedicated exclusively to the health and fitness of people with intellectual disabilities. Isn't that exciting?" Wilbers asked.
Derek Sandbothe, who has been a Special Olympics athlete for 15 years announced the opening of the new campus. He said he loves the people he meets every day as an athlete. And, the organization has hired him to be a host who answers phones and greets everyone who comes into the complex.
Sandbothe said he is the first Special Olympics athlete to be employed by SOMO.
"We are making history," he said. "I have friends from all across the state, but I only get to see them a few times a year. The Training for Life campus will be our place to train and learn the lessons about sports and life."
The campus will hold athletic camps year-round for Special Olympic athletes. It will host 1,200 athletes annually, Sandbothe said.
"This is a job, a dream come true for me," he said.
The intention is that the campus will help turn dreams into realities for thousands of other Missourians with intellectual disabilities, Wilbers said.
He watched as some walked into the building for the first time.
"We wanted this building and this campus to be their place that they can call home. It's now home," Wilbers said. "And some of the faces I saw when they walked in — thank you, it was priceless."