For local Special Olympics athletes, the program is about much more than just getting a chance to run down a track or compete for medals. It’s about finding a community.
“It truly is one of the biggest social opportunities for him, as well as making sure he’s staying active,” said Molly Skelsey, whose 14-year-old son Nolan participates in Special Olympics.
For his part, Nolan, who attends Pleasant Lea Middle School, said he enjoys cheering on his friends almost as much as competing himself.
The kids he competes with have become close friends. At a recent game, they celebrated excitedly, hugging each other and jumping up and down to celebrate good plays in flag football.
Social interaction is also the best part of the competition for 11-year-old Oren Thurber.
“The reason why I like to do it is making friends and helping others to succeed,” Oren said.
When Oren saw a friend lagging behind in a race, “I did put my hand on his back to encourage him to keep going. He still got the third place medal, and I got second.”
Those moments are a huge component of the program.
“He’s always had a very kind heart, but he is realizing that he’s not the only one who is special like he is in our family or in a classroom, and he has a support network, and he can lean on that network,” said Whitney Thurber, Oren’s mom. “He’s also grown in his humility, where he wants to make sure everyone is involved and included.”
The Lee’s Summit School District provides Special Olympics opportunities throughout the school year for students age 8 to 21 who have developmental disabilities. Right now, that includes flag football, bowling, bocce, volleyball, basketball and track.
“A lot of people think it’s just track and field. It’s a year round program. It’s got a lot more involved in it than I think people realize,” said Dawn Jones, Special Olympics program coordinator for the district.
Special Olympics is different from the Paralympics, because it’s not primarily for people with physical disabilities, although some participants do have physical limitations.
“Physically, they may play at a high level. They might have natural talent. … I might have kiddos who can do great at five on five, but then I have other kids who really can only participate in and individual skills-type sport,” Jones said.
There isn’t just one competition. Sporting events happen throughout the year, which gives the athletes more chances to see each other and develop friendships.
Jones estimated that she gets around 50 students each year who want to take part.
Anna Schwager recently graduated from the district’s Gaining Real-life Experience and Training program. After enjoying herself so much for years playing as part of the school district’s teams, she immediately found an adult Special Olympics team to join.
“I’ve learned that you try your best and have fun,” she said.
Molly Skelsey has seen athletes like Anna move on to adult Special Olympics.
“I’m very aware that as Nolan gets older and becomes an adult, the (social) opportunity won’t be there as much as it is now, in school. I’m happy and grateful to know as he gets older there will be opportunities in Special Olympics to continue to have relationships… he can be involved in. I wish there were more things like that as he becomes an adult,” Skelsey said.
The community that Special Olympics produces is much larger than just the athletes who compete.
“It is making (Oren) feel like he can do something like any other child that society would consider normal. I would also say that it gives us parents a place to support and feel encouragement with our children in what they’re going through as well,” said Whitney Thurber. “It is definitely a positive atmosphere that I love and want to continue to raise him in.”