When Justin Whitaker is not studying or conducting research in atmospheric science at CSU, the Ph.D. candidate often is supporting athletes with special needs as a volunteer with Fort Collins Adaptive Recreation Opportunities. Over the past four years, Whitaker has dedicated several hours a week to Fort Collins ARO, which is run by the City of Fort Collins and affiliated with Special Olympics Colorado.
“I have a younger brother with autism, and Fort Collins ARO allows me to merge my love of sports with my passion to give back to people like him,” Whitaker said.
In recognition of his contributions to graduate students and Unified Sports, CSU’s Graduate Student Council selected Whitaker as the 2020 Spring Volunteer of the Month, an honor bestowed once a semester. He was nominated by two fellow students.
Since childhood, Whitaker has loved playing all types of sports, including basketball, football, soccer and ultimate frisbee. As an undergraduate, he ran cross country and track at Wofford College. As a “Partner” with Unified Sports, Whitaker now shares his love of sports with athletes who have disabilities. He plays alongside them in flag football, volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball, attending weekly practices and tournaments across the Front Range for each sport. The program provides an encouraging environment and community for athletes with disabilities.
“Unified sports are great because they bring everyone together to work toward a common goal, and because of ARO, athletes in Fort Collins have their own dedicated league to play in,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker has coached ARO softball, flag football and basketball. Through the Special Olympics Club at CSU, he also competed with a CSU Unified basketball team at the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association national tournament in Wichita, Kansas, last spring.
Off the field and court
From 2017 to 2019, Whitaker served other graduate students in his role as a graduate student representative. He advocated to improve working conditions for graduate students and even organized a town hall meeting on the rising cost of living in Fort Collins.
“I enjoyed being a liaison between the students and faculty because it allowed me to see the department from a different perspective,” Whitaker said.
“It is nice to be recognized for what I do, but I hope winning this award will bring attention to the ARO program and the great work it does,” Whitaker said. “I encourage others to get involved in the community in some capacity.”