Creating Endless PossABILITIES

Champions for Champions is a local nonprofit with a global connection.

Taking part in a recent therapeutic basketball game, in partnership with the city of Ocala, were Champions for Champions players Mateo Villon, Gaetano Esposito, Michael McCurdy, Braylan Tandy, Jules Ryan, Trystan and Troy Sneeds, Charli Forsyth, Joyce Valcin, Jasper Roman, Shawn Warden and Kayla Smith, along with volunteer Chuck Forsyth and city of Ocala therapeutic program director Latoya Artis.

Local nonprofits rarely reach the national eye, but one Ocala organization is impacting people across the globe. 

MariaCon Roman founded Champions for Champions in 2016 as a nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities for youth with special needs. One of the ways they accomplish this goal is by providing one very special opportunity—that of assisting in the design of Miss Universe dresses. 

It started with the group’s Universeability Pageant, Roman says. Miami resident Kirsten Regalado, president of Miss Worldwide International Pageant, fashion designer of the 2022 Miss Universe Iceland National Costume and for members of the House of Gucci, saw a Facebook post about the pageant and later sought out Roman to see if she could help their cause. 

“Three years ago,” Roman says, “she saw the artwork that the kids do, and she said, ‘Oh my God, some of these are really beautiful.’ Three years ago is when we started designing for the Miss Universe contestants. She gives us a theme and we try to design to that theme.”

Mateo Villon, Gaetano Esposito, Kailey Sullivan

Champions for Champions provides inclusive programs and services for individuals with all abilities. The organization serves people with special needs and their families by facilitating and providing educational, social, sports, music, arts, job training and life skill programs. The group’s slogan is: Creating Endless PossABILITIES.

There are about 12 participants in the art program and they help contribute to the dress designs. There are around 15 participants in the culinary program and about 60 in the Universeability Pageant. 

Anyone can enter the pageant, at no fee and with no age limit, and everyone is granted a prize and a title because Champions for Champions holds that each participant is just as special as their need is. The pageant has had virtual contestants from Brazil, South Africa and the Philippines. 

Champions for Champions grew out of Roman’s fundraising efforts for different Ocala charities, which she had been supporting since 1999. But, she said, she kept thinking about ways to focus on opening doors to those with special needs. 

“I’ve always thought of, ‘How could I get through to them?’” she shares. “You know, I wish I could go to their head. If you stay with them for so long, you kind of know that there is something good inside them, like there is a talent inside them but they just can’t express it. Champions for Champions is about creating endless possibilities.” 

The 501(c)(3) got its name from one of its primary fundraisers, an annual celebrity dinner and meet and greet with retired National Football League and National Hockey League champions. One of the co-founders of Champions for Champions is Ocala’s own Don Nottingham, a Miami Dolphins legend known as “The Human Bowling Ball.” The organization’s co-founding trio also includes businessman Kenneth Shaw.

The name Champions for Champions also is in honor of the volunteers who champion the cause of those with special needs. 

Current Champions for Champions programs include a culinary class, a music program, dance nights, art Fridays, volunteer days in the community, inclusion in the Toastmasters International public speaking program, and opportunities to go surfing and bowling. Roman says they hope to one day be able to offer even more, such as an entrepreneurship program.

Champions for Champions relies on fundraisers, private donations and sponsorships to offer all of the life-skills building programs. The annual celebrity dinner and the pageant both will be held in April. OS

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