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Matthew B. Aaron knew he had to be nimble when the COVID-19 pandemic hit because it nearly completely shut down the usual activities associated with Special Olympics Pennsylvania, where he serves as president and CEO.

Aaron pushed for and then co-chaired a national task force focused on creating new programs that could provide virtual opportunities for athletes that would mimic in-person sports training and competition to keep athletes active.

In only four months, the group launched a nationwide “Stride Challenge,” an eight-week walking, running, rolling (wheelchair) challenge. Nearly 40 Special Olympics state programs registered more than 1,500 Special Olympics athletes, who collectively logged more than 100,000 miles in this inaugural activity. Simultaneously, the group created a Fitness Heptathlon that allowed athletes to select fitness exercises and then work with a coach while training and competing safely from their own homes.

“To remain influential, in fact to remain relevant, you have to constantly reimagine things — your industry, your business environment and your own leadership style,” Aaron said. “For me as a nonprofit leader, our mission statement is our north star. Our programs and services and business models will constantly evolve, but if we keep our athletes at the center of everything we do then those changes will always be for the best.”

Special Olympics Pennsylvania is a nonprofit organization that aims to provide year-round sports training and competition in Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The nonprofit gives those athletes opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share gifts, skills and friendship with their families and the community.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968 with a belief that people with intellectual disabilities were more capable in sports and physical activities than many experts thought. The Special Olympics movement has now grown to serve more than six million athletes in over 180 countries around the world. In Pennsylvania, the first Special Olympics Pennsylvania competition was held at West Chester University in May 1970, when 135 athletes participated in a small track-and-field competition. The organization thrived in its early years, but growth had stagnated and revenues were declining when the board of directors hired Aaron in 2008 to lead a turnaround.

Aaron hired key staff to address the financial challenges and delivered a $400,000 surplus in his first year. He has since tripled annual revenues from approximately $3 million to nearly $10 million. Today, Special Olympics Pennsylvania provides training and approximately 500 competitions annually in 21 sports for nearly 13,000 children and adults with a statewide team of 50 staff and more than 6,000 volunteer coaches.

Aaron has distinguished himself as a leader, not only with Special Olympics but across the nonprofit sector. He was elected board chair of the Alzheimer’s Association, National Capital Area Chapter, and served as president of Our Daily Bread in Fairfax, Virginia. He serves on the board of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia. Aaron is also a Central PA Board member for the Satell Institute, the leading CEO organization dedicated to corporate social responsibility.


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