When Jessica Ritchie first stepped onto Villanova’s campus, she was only a sophomore in high school. Living in nearby Downingtown, she volunteered at Villanova’s Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival. She enjoyed being part of the event so much that she volunteered again the following year, where she met an athlete named Joe (“Sparky”). While talking on the sidelines, Sparky revealed to Jessica that his dream was to speak at the Special Olympics Opening Ceremonies. Jessica told Sparky that her dream was to become the Festival Director, and if she did, he would speak at the Opening Ceremonies. It was then that Jessica realized that Villanova was the place for her.
Jessica got involved with Special Olympics right away during her freshman year and served as a Local Program Host. In her sophomore year, she joined the Committee and served as the Finance Chair. In her junior year, she was selected for the Management Team as the Director of Special Events, and now in her senior year, she fulfilled her goal by becoming the Festival Director.
The Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival is the largest annual student-run Special Olympics event in the world. Each year, Villanova hosts more than 1,000 athletes and 5,000 volunteers.
This year’s Fall Festival theme is “Around the World,” and the venues around campus will be designated as different countries. “For our athletes, this weekend is their favorite time of the year,” Jessica said. “A coach once told me it’s like all their favorite holidays combined into one, and that is why I am so honored to serve as the Festival Director.”
Something important to Jessica was to introduce Special Olympics’ new initiative, Unified Sports, to Villanova. This initiative brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together to compete on the same team. This year, the Special Olympics Committee hosted three Unified events with Villanova students and Special Olympics athletes playing together. “Unified Sports promotes inclusion and respect for all people. It makes everyone feel like a valued member of the team as they look beyond differing abilities.”
Jessica, a Marketing and International Business major, is also involved with LEVEL, Villanova Ambassadors, Greek Life, the Marketing Society, Women in Business Society and has studied abroad in Chile and China. Serving as Festival Director has taught Jessica a lot about being a good leader. “I’m so grateful for this experience. It has taught me when to step up to lead and also when to step back and empower others to lead,” she said.
Jessica knows that she can draw on her Special Olympics experience and translate those skills into her career. “By leading a 90-person committee, I’ve learned to manage conflicts, facilitate communication, remain calm under pressure and ultimately be a servant leader to ensure that the athletes have the best experience,” she explained.
And Jessica kept the promise she made to Sparky years ago. At this year’s Opening Ceremonies, she and Sparky will deliver the opening remarks together. Two dreams accomplished.