Last fall, under brilliant blue skies in South Africa, soccer players of all intellectual abilities from 10 African countries kicked off a three-day Unity Cup tournament. In a nearby auditorium, their mothers traded emotional stories about raising children with intellectual disabilities. As part of this family health forum, more than 100 local teenagers also attended the event where they learned about respect and equal treatment for people of all mental abilities. Special Olympics athletes participated by sharing their own perspectives on hard work and triumph.

It was the first Special Olympics regional tournament in Africa, and it brought together hundreds of families, coaches and athletes, says Charles Nyambe, director of program development and sports at Special Olympics Africa. As a result of the tournament, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and South Africa qualified to participate in the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Brazil in 2013.

Recording Artists Raising Millions for Special Olympics

These events would not have been possible without grants from the Special Olympics Christmas Record Trust, a fund established 25 years ago with the proceeds from the A Very Special Christmas (AVSC) album. The annual recording series, created by Jimmy and Vicki lovine and Bobby Shriver, along with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, is the largest single source of funding for Special Olympics athletes, earning more than $109 million in investments and royalties since its inception, according to the organization.

Over the years, participating artists have included U2, No Doubt, Madonna and Stevie Wonder. The latest albums, which were released in October, feature Martina McBride and Vince Gill, along with the trio of emerging artists – Jono, Grayson Sanders and Lauriana Mae – who performed the 2012 Coca-Cola holiday song, “Something in the Air.”

Christmas Music Does Good Around the World

While musicians record the songs in studios in Los Angeles and New York, the funds they raise reach across continents and into the smallest villages. In 2012, the Christmas Record Trust awarded 66 grants totaling $1.7 million to programs in 62 countries, including Egypt, Croatia, India, Africa and several regions of the United States, according to Emily Dutterer, senior manager of strategic investments at Special Olympics.

Each year, Special Olmypics Country programs apply for grants from the Christmas Record Trust, which are reviewed by a committee of music industry executives and Special Olympics representatives. Awards are based largely on need; about 25 percent of the countries are classified by the United Nations as operating as a "least developed" nation.

The Christmas Record Trust grant also helps attract other sources to support the Special Olympics. For example, says Nyambe, basketball great Dikembe Mutombo leads a Special Olympics International basketball clinic in South Africa. That clinic now draws the support of the National Basketball Association and the International Federation of Association Football.

Helping Special Olympics Grow Internationally

The grants have also helped encourage countries to venture outside their traditional sports boundaries. Chile established its first bocce program this year with funds from the Christmas Record Trust. The low-impact sport is not widely played in the South American country, but those with intellectual disabilities thrive at it, says Sergio Elias, president of Special Olympics Chile. So the organization designed workshops throughout the country to teach athletes and their family members how to play.

Additionally, Chile created a more cohesive national structure for soccer tournaments. According to Elias, the grants enabled their club to send 85 athletes to participate in the first Special Olympics Copa America in Paraguay, and they've doubled the number of Special Olympics sports they participate in.

The country now plays 10 sports, including bocce, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, softball and floor hockey. One of Chile's more recent exceptional recruits is Jose Herrera, a young man who has challenges with speaking. Through his soccer training and encouragement from teammates, Herrera developed his own phrases and discovered other ways to communicate and connect with people. “He needs physical activity to stay healthy,” says Elias. “The improvements have been remarkable.”

India's program, known as Special Olympics Bharat, is also making significant strides. Dutterer credits the Christmas Record Trust grants for growing the accredited program. Special Olympics International designated India as a priority nation, enabling the country to recruit 60,000 coaches and more than 850,000 Special Olympics athletes, many from its poorest urban and rural areas. Among India's achievements in 2012: hosting an inaugural national softball championship for people with intellectual disabilities and raising enough money to send three swimmers to represent India in the first Special Olympics Global Aquatics Meet in Puerto Rico this September. The Bharat team took home three silver and two bronze medals.

Yet not all achievements stemming from the grants can be measured in silver and gold.

In Africa one of the most touching stories to emerge from the support of the Christmas Record Trust grant is that of a young boy from Malawi. A local community leader discovered 9-year-old Aaron Banda unattended outside his small, rural home. His mother, fearing he would wander from home and lose his way, tethered him to a tree every day before she left to work in the distant fields.

“It was not done out of cruelty,” Nyambe points out.  “Far from it, it was out of love and a desire to keep him safe.  But until Special Olympics, their options were so limited.”  Through programing and people supported with the Christmas Record Trust grant, better options now exist for the Banda family.  A Special Olympics coach works with young Aaron several times a week on basic kinesthetics.  Special Olympics health volunteers have reached out to his parents with education on health services.  And the family has been connected with athletes with similar disabilities and their families in a neighboring village – giving Aaron a chance to compete and broadening his parents community network.

“Special Olympics has brought a bit of hope and humanity into what was a very desperate situation,” Nyambe said.  “It’s just one small example of how the Very Special Christmas albums have been a remarkable gift to so many people around the world who may never hear the album’s music, but are deeply touched by it just the same.”