Kendra Appleheimer ’12 M.Eng. ’12 is busy when she’s on site at Special Olympics events. As the organization’s vice president for games and program technology, she’s in charge of the many systems that keep the games running. But last June, in the middle of Special Olympics’ National Games in Berlin, Germany, Kendra took a moment to make a birthday call to her older sister, Kristen. Kristen, who has Down Syndrome, is the inspiration for Kendra’s chosen career.
“I don’t know a world without people with disabilities. I think that’s given me a lot of empathy for the mission and purpose of Special Olympics, and being so close to my sister has, too,” Kendra says.
Kendra and Kristen, two years her senior, grew up close in their hometown of Brick Township, New Jersey. Kendra cheered Kristen on for years as she participated in swimming, gymnastics and other sports through the township’s recreational program for people with disabilities. When she was old enough, Kendra volunteered for the organization, learning how competitions worked from the inside. She also saw how athletes and their families navigate those competitions and how technology can improve or detract from those experiences.
At Stevens — where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in systems engineering — Kendra found a way to merge her passion for supporting people with disabilities and her growing expertise in technology. Her senior design project was a toy — with an accessible switch and joystick — for children with physical and intellectual disabilities.
“Accessible video games and toys are common now, but ten years ago, they were less common,” Kendra says. “We were able to use mechanical engineering aspects like robotics and programming to build a prototype.”
Her accomplishments at Stevens led to a position in IT consulting with Accenture, for which she relocated to Washington, D.C. At work, Kendra combined her systems engineering and problem-solving knowledge from Stevens with new skills in software development and delivery.
A lifelong tennis player, Kendra — who played for Stevens and earned the 2011 Woman of the Year Award from the New Jersey Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women — also became a volunteer coach for a Special Olympics tennis team in northern Virginia. Later, she began volunteering with the Special Olympics Washington, D.C. Adult Unified Tennis Team, which includes athletes with and without disabilities.
Six years into her career with Accenture, Kendra began to wonder: Was there a day job where she could apply her skills and experience to help people with disabilities? She began researching organizations for which she’d like to work, including Special Olympics, which serves people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and has headquarters in Washington, D.C. Although she had no direct connection to the organization, she reached out to Special Olympics’ chief information officer and voiced her interest in working with them. As luck would have it, Special Olympics was looking for someone with her skill set, too.
Kendra hit the ground running, joining Special Olympics just a few months before the Abu Dhabi Special Olympics World Summer Games in March 2019. The World Games, like the Olympics, happen every four years and attract thousands of athletes from around the globe. She dove right in to help ensure all systems were ready for the more than 7,000 athletes competing in more than 20 different sports.
Since then, Kendra has built a team that’s committed to promoting good health and sport for people with disabilities. Although the team handles technology needs for many aspects of Special Olympics, the bulk of the job surrounds the major games. In 2022, that meant serving three big events: USA Games in Orlando, Florida, the National Games in Berlin and the Unified Cup soccer tournament in Detroit, Michigan.
Before events, Kendra’s team develops and trains people to use the systems for registration, credentialing and competition management. They also make sure those systems integrate with others, including timing systems, websites and mobile apps that disseminate news and game results. Once events begin, Kendra’s team is on site helping to ensure all the moving pieces are working.
“You’re in high-intensity problem-solving mode all the time, which is challenging but fun,” she says. “If you can walk around and see what’s going on for a few minutes — all the athletes, the unified partners — everyone’s so happy to be there. It’s a great atmosphere.”
Whether it’s a mobile app, a website or another technological solution, Kendra draws upon what she’s learned from her sister and other Special Olympics athletes to inform every project she works on.
“You can plan from a sport or technology perspective as best you can, but you also have to account for the real world. What does that look like? When we’re talking about something like a mobile app or a website, I can empathize with what an athlete may be looking for,” she says.
Working with Special Olympics offers several perks that Kendra can share with Kristen. During Kristen’s visits to D.C., she has visited Special Olympics’ headquarters and spoken with leaders of the organization. And Kendra makes sure to bring back mementos for Kristen from the events she takes part in around the world. This year, though, Kendra hopes Kristen can bring home some mementos of her own when she joins her sister at the 2023 World Summer Games in Berlin.
“Being involved in the community of people with disabilities, volunteering through sport and finding a way to bring in the engineering aspect has really been a throughline of my life,” Kendra says. “Having these things come together for me in this job, people work their whole lives to find that. I’m very lucky I found it.” — Kristin Hanson