SPECIAL OLYMPICS — Preparing #LA2015

Top: Special Olympics god medal. Middle-left: Buddies cheering on the starting mark of a pool. Middle-right: Young man diving into lane of pool. Bottom: Competitors running in their lanes on a track.

My husband and I are preparing for the upcoming 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. It’s set to be the largest sports and humanitarian event anywhere in the world that year, and the single biggest event in LA since the 1984 Olympics. There’ll be 7,000 athletes from around the world who’ll compete in different sporting events. Athletes with intellectual disabilities will participate, along their coaches, over the 9-day competition. The event will require 30,000 volunteers, and draw more than 500,000 spectators to cheer the athletes on.

My husband and I still remember the day that we learned that our daughter, Janelle, one of the athletes, had intellectual disabilities. That was one of the most shocking experiences of our lives. How could it be? We had such big dreams for our daughter, and with the diagnosis we feared they’d never come true.

Then we went into denial. She’s was just a year or so behind in speech, and we were good parents. If we just provided her with all the therapy, education, and medication that she needed, maybe things would turn around.

That phase was followed by sadness, anger and fear. We grieved for the life we thought our daughter could no longer have. We got mad at her caregivers, fearing that they weren’t doing enough to help. None of our friends had children with intellectual disabilities, and even some of our relatives didn’t understand what we were going through. We worried that we wouldn’t be able to provide for Janelle’s complex, life-long needs.

Fortunately, we moved into acceptance and determination, coming to understand how our daughter’s uniqueness enriched us. We loved her, and were devoted to giving her the best life possible. We planned to build new dreams for her and our family. But we weren’t sure how that could happen…

Then came SO!

Mothers and fathers of children with intellectual disabilities go through the same difficult feelings of adjustment. Raising a child with intellectual disabilities is a life-altering experience. As one of the estimated 4 million SO families worldwide, we parents find that having a child involved in the program helps make this uncharted journey a life-affirming, joyful experience.

SO helps our loved ones be healthier, stronger and physically fit. They grow in confidence, social skills and friendships, and enjoy a boost in self-image. When I became a SO mom, our whole family became immersed in the lifestyle. We wouldn’t dream of missing one of our daughter’s competitions. We go to cheer her on, our hearts filled with pride. My husband, two sons, and I became involved as coaches, Unified Partners, and volunteers on various committees.

We live north of LA in the Santa Clarita community. Yet, when our Janelle started SO, at 14, there wasn’t a local program in town. We had to drive an hour to the San Fernando Valley, so she could participate in Tri-Valley SO. We spent our Saturdays taking her to swimming and horseback riding practice.

Finally, in 1997, Don Zennie, a previous SO Coach, created a program close to home. Janelle was one of a handful of athletes who showed up at his first basketball practice. I was so thrilled that I told him I’d do anything to help him grow the program. We held car washes, rummage sales, sold Dodger game tickets, and more. Don served as a ‘volunteer area director,’ but owing to his business obligations, he didn’t have the time to steer the program in the direction it needed to go. So, I stepped in as volunteer area director, sharing the responsibilities with another SO mom, Nancy Heath.

SO Santa Clarita quickly expanded to include over 100 athletes, and added the additional sports of track and field (athletics), swimming, floor hockey and softball. I co-wrote a grant with the Tri-Valley area director, Jan Maseda, to The California Endowment. We sought to further expand our sports programs and bring on a paid area director and administrative assistant to open a local SO business office. We were awarded a grant of approximately $350,000, which greatly fueled our momentum.

I was hired by SO Southern California to be the paid area director for Santa Clarita. Local SO coach and volunteer, Suzanne Vanvakaris, became our administrative assistant. Along with some amazing volunteers, we’ve accomplished a great deal. When I retired in 2004, SO Santa Clarita Valley had hundreds of volunteers, 450 athletes and 17 year-round sports. We also hosted countless local and regional competitions.

For our family’s contributions, we received the 2001 Southern California Distinguished Outstanding Family Service Award. Gary and I were presented the 2003 SO Don Zennie Outstanding Service Award. Our son, Eric, is now in the Massachusetts SO Hall of Fame in recognition of his outstanding fundraising accomplishments. He’s almost raised a million dollars for SO Massachusetts through his creation of an annual Bio-Ball Fundraiser, and his participation as a charity runner in the Boston Marathon.

The biggest accolades should be reserved for Janelle, who became an accomplished SO athlete, excelling at floor hockey, softball, basketball, swimming, equestrian, soccer, cycling, snow skiing, and tennis. Despite her petite, 4’10 stature, she is a tenacious competitor, and has earned many gold, silver and bronze medals. She’s also a global messenger for SO, speaking at numerous events, and had the honor of meeting Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of SO, and Tim and Maria Shriver.

The highlight of our Special Olympics experience was

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Janelle’s participation in two SO World Summer Games. She represented Team USA in the 1999 SO World Summer Games in North Carolina, when she was 17. CNN, ABC and Channel 9 News featured her, as did several newspapers and magazines. We were ecstatic that she did so well, given that the horseback riders competed using unfamiliar, donated horses, and had only a couple of practice sessions.

Janelle, who won a bronze medal in one of her events, was then selected to participate as a member of the USA women’s basketball team in the 2003 SO World Summer Games in Ireland. She celebrated her 21st birthday there, where her team went on to win a 4th place ribbon. Having our daughter participate in the last two SO World Games is an honor. Our family is so proud when she puts on her USA uniform; nobody in our family wants to miss it, so Janelle’s two brothers, grandparents, and her aunt and uncle often come along.

Young lady with Special Olympics t-shirt that reads: Warning: Special Olympics is highly addictive and you may be hooked for life.The whole SO World Games experience is phenomenal, from the star-studded opening and closing ceremonies; to the harmonious camaraderie amongst athletes and family members from other countries; to the athletes’ impressive courage.

We trade pins, thankful for the vast global impact that SO has worldwide, including the impressive outpouring of sponsors, donors and volunteers. We bask in the abundance of genuine smiles, hearty laughter, and enthusiastic high-fives. The wonderful memories last a lifetime! SO has had such a profound influence on our family. Our close friends are other SO parents, who provide a strong circle of support. They help us handle the emotional pendulum that comes with parenting a child with intellectual disabilities. We don’t know what we would do without each other. The advocacy tips, the shoulders to cry on, the abundance of hugs as we celebrate milestones that mean so much to us.

That’s why Gary and I are on the committee to ensure that SO athletes’ family members feel welcomed and satisfied with their World Games experience. We send out a newsletter so that they will know about the multitude of things to do and see in LA.

Gary and I also serve on the Santa Clarita Host Town Committee, and next summer will welcome 100-150 athletes and coaches from other countries for three days of recreation, entertainment, and community exchanges preceding the opening ceremonies. This will give delegation members a special reception, and time to rest and adjust to the local climate and time zone.

We’re currently raising funds and handling the logistics of providing housing at our local Master’s College, obtaining donations of bedding, meals, transportation services and more.

SO provides a wealth of benefits for athletes, parents, and family members, and it’s completely free! So when I say, “Then came Special Olympics,” I always reflect on how pivotal a time that was in our lives, helping us to unconditionally accept and cherish our Janelle.

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by Maureen Spindt

specialolympics.org/los-angeles-2015

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