"Everything to Win"
Richmond Parents Monthly
by gayla mills
When 2nd grader Reneé was just a baby, her parents feared she might never learn to walk or use her hands. So when they saw her play her first basketball tournament in the Special Olympics of Virginia (SOVA), the experience was almost overwhelming.
"To see her excel at something like that, and to see her playing with others," says her mom Debbie Anderson, "it gave me a real sense of hope for her future."
What people notice first about Reneé is that she's half the height of the others on the court. But when she's told to guard someone two feet taller, she sticks to them like glue. And because she's so small, players tend to underestimate and ignore her, at their peril.
"She's fast," says her skills coach Amy Colaizzi, "and the other kids are so stunned that she's so little, they don't realize she's going to take that ball and go. And sometimes she makes the basket!" What does Reneé think about all this? "I think it's fun," she says.
Reneé is one of the many Special Olympics athletes from throughout Virginia who complete in over 19 sports. SOVA is a year-round sports training and competition program for people with mental disabilities. In this year's Summer Games, over 1,400 people (ages 8 to adult) will come together at the University of Richmond for the two day June event. With roughly 14,000 participants in the state overall, many of the athletes play in local competitions rather than in the state-wide Winter or Summer Games.
Reneé is usually joined at practices and tournaments by her older sister Nicolle, 14, who is one of the many volunteers who make the SOVA program work. Nicolle supervises the kids, helps the teams in basketball, bowling, track, and skiing with their equipment, and assists with anything else that's needed "Nicole just took to it," says Anderson, "and she has as much fun as Reneé does."
With most of its funding coming from private donations, SOVA depends on volunteers for virtually all of its staffing. From regional coordinators to coaches, team helpers to event assistants, volunteers are essential for making the Games a success. "The area coordinators are so wonderful," says parent Meg Hopkins. "They set everything up and they organize everything. It amazes me what they can do."
But the most important ingredient in the Games is, of course, the athletes. SOVA athletes not only work hard and play well, but they also inspire the people who see them play.
"Each one of the Special Olympics athletes has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and they don't treat each other differently," says Richmond Area Chairman Michael J. Marretti. "They share each others' problems and successes, which other people typically don't do."
In the competitive environment of most sports, only the best are rewarded, and there is little attention paid to the losers. Whereas at the SOVA games, "You'll see a much greater amount of compassion between the winners and those who didn't do so well." Thoughtfulness is the norm at practices too, says Marretti. "There's a track at UR where you'll frequently see athletes stop or slow down to let the one behind them catch up." So he sees a real benefit to people who volunteer to help or to those who come to observe the athletes. "I think the people that the athletes come in contact with gain a better sense of tolerance and inclusion."
It isn't just special needs athletes who play, however. SOVA also offers "unified teams" where people who have no disabilities play alongside those who do. These "partners" can be siblings, friends, or anyone else who wants to play. This program offers a special opportunity for families with children of mixed abilities to participate together in something that's fun, athletic, and rewarding. "For anybody who's ever thought about participating, they should do it, because these sports do so much for kids," says Anderson.
Most of the team sports have unified players, including soccer, volleyball, softball, bowling, basketball, and golf. For Kim Pennington, who coaches SO basketball in Henrico, unified teams are especially helpful for those who aren't used to people with disabilities.
"The unified teams help tremendously. When we first started, we had a lot of guys who hadn't done a lot with people with special needs, but then they saw the growth on the part of the athletes." So Pennington believes that SOVA can be valuable to people from all backgrounds. "The Special Olympics and its unified teams is such a spectacular program to help with or get your kids involved in. It will help them learn how to be more patient and to understand that everyone can learn."
The Special Olympics was begun by Eunice Kennedy Shriver with the purpose of helping those with mental disabilities. These children and adults are the ones who have so much to gain from the program. As Anderson explains, "When you're special needs, you're always told what you can't do. The Special Olympics gives them something to excel at and get rewarded for."
Hopkins, whose daughter Erin has been playing for almost ten years, sees a range of benefits for the kids. "It teaches them team skills, how to get along with each other, winning and losing," she says. "But Erin has also formed some good friendships with the people she plays with. She really likes being independent on their overnight trips. And they have dances, and that's a big deal. And she really enjoys dancing with all the boys!"
Coach Colaizzi has also seen what a difference the sports make for the athletes. "The kids benefit greatly in the area of confidence. I saw children feel like they weren't part of a group now feel like they could participate. They suddenly feel better about themselves."
And the SO coaches make sure that the kids learn about more than just how to play a sport. "They learn a lot about daily living skills," says Colaizzi. "We go on overnight trips and they learn things like eating in a public place, how to fix their own hair and clothes, and how to help each other."
Parent Mary Ellyson, whose daughter participated as both a child and adult, says how meaningful the experience was for helping Shannon grow up. "She loved being there and loved the competition. She was around people who didn't judge her and she was able to be a helper to others."
Parents get a lot out of SOVA too. For many parents of special needs children, it's hard to trust others to care for their children. Yet SOVA provides extensive and well trained supervision for its participants, and for overnight trips provides one chaperone for every two children. This gives parents a breather along with a lesson in accepting their child's need for some independence. "It gives me a respite where I can let down my guard and relax because she's so well taken of," says Anderson.
As a volunteer, Colaizzi finds the work of coaching special people its own reward. "There's a lot of camaraderie. Part of the fun of this is getting to see them grow up." And as a parent, Anderson thinks her daughter is the clear winner from her participation "The Special Olympics has given Reneé the confidence to do anything she tries. I know whatever she does, she'll be able to stand on her own two feet and do what she needs to be able to do." And a parent can't ask for much more than that.