Light The Torch

Written by:  Gary Curreri, Sun Sentinel Correspondent

Special Olympics Florida is joining forces with Publix Super Markets to raise funds for thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities through the Torch Icon Campaign.

For the past 50 years, Special Olympics and Publix have united through a mission-driven collaboration to help people with intellectual disabilities and provide more life-changing opportunities to Special Olympics Florida athletes.

From Jan. 5 to 16, the organizations will once again have the annual Torch Icon Campaign, bringing together Publix associates, customers and communities to support over 60,000 Special Olympics athletes in Florida and beyond.

One of those athletes is Tamarac resident and 2007 Taravella High School graduate Michelle Canazaro.

Canazaro, 33, who has autism, started in Special Olympics when she was 8. Not only is she a Special Olympics athlete, but she is also on the athlete leadership committee, a global messenger and sits on the board of directors for the state.

Canazaro competes in a multitude of sports including alpine skiing, stand up paddle, basketball, softball, volleyball, soccer, swimming, golf and bowling.

Michelle Canazarro Stand Up Paddle

“I like everything I participate in, but I would definitely have to say my two most favorites are alpine skiing and stand up paddle,” said Canazaro, who will compete in that sport at the USA Games in Orlando from June 5 to 12. “I was on the Ellen DeGeneres show [in June 2021] where I thought I was going to talk about Special Olympics. She surprisingly announced I was going to be competing.  “Ellen said she was an ambassador for Special Olympics and said I was going to be competing,” Canazaro said. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’ It was really cool.”

Canazaro said Special Olympics has made a huge impact on her life. She went to a vocational school and received her certification to be an administrative assistant and hopes to go to college to become a licensed massage therapist.

“It has brought me inclusion, brought me new friends,” she said. “Not only are you socializing with people who don’t have disabilities, but it also helps bring the community together by having people that don’t know about Special Olympics be a part of it and us be a part of theirs.

“It’s a global community changer for the whole world because a lot of people don’t think that someone with special needs can do things, and that’s not true,” Canazaro said. “They think you can’t do this or you can’t go to college, and that is not true. We are just as equal as everyone else and we just have our own way of showing it. We have our own voice and we can tell people it is not just about sports, it is about inclusion and bringing everyone in the community together.”

Those looking to participate in the Torch Icon Campaign and help support Special Olympics Florida athletes can visit their local Publix store and help support their state’s athletes with a donation.

Michelle Canazarro Skiing

All donors will receive over $20 in coupon savings, including Procter & Gamble brands like Crest, Always, Olay, Old Spice, Gillette and Pampers. Donations can be made at the register during check out for $1 or a specific amount.

Participants will also have the chance to meet Special Olympics athletes in-store to hear about their inspiring stories. This year, the campaign is reaching new communities throughout the Southeast U.S. and supporting more Special Olympics athletes, making this the largest campaign to date.

Canazaro said she is happy that Publix has teamed with Special Olympics Florida.

“Publix has been a very big part of Special Olympics for a very long time,” she said. “We really appreciate their support. They help us with the Torch campaign every year and it is very fulfilling to know that people want to donate and help raise money for a very special organization and cause. It’s cool because people go into the store and they talk about the campaign, donate or maybe even become part of the Special Olympics as a volunteer.

“When I first started, I just thought it was good exercise,” Canazaro said. “I thought I would make some new friends and over the years I would have fun. I am really glad that I did because now we are getting the new generation and bringing in new athletes, or Unified partners, or multisport athletes like me. It is really amazing and great that they can raise money to help the athletes.”

“Publix has been a supporter of Special Olympics Florida since the very beginning,” Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock said in a statement. “They have been with us since our founding 50 years ago, and they remain one of our most committed partners.

“Publix associates and company leaders always step up when we need them and work tirelessly to make the annual Torch Icon Campaign a success,” she said. “We have an incredibly special relationship with Publix, and we are thrilled they are part of the Special Olympics Florida team.”

Since 1993, over $60 million has been raised through the Torch Icon Campaign, helping Special Olympics athletes to develop their physical and mental wellness, demonstrate courage and experience the power of sports with their family, friends and their communities.

Special Olympics Florida serves nearly 60,000 athletes who compete at the local, state, national and international levels.

In addition to training and competition for the athletes, Special Olympics Florida provides over $2 million in free medical screenings for thousands of Floridians with intellectual disabilities through its health programs, including access to free prescription glasses and hearing aids.