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Saturday December 20th 2014

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A Very Special Olympics

Local Sports Need More Support
By Stephanie Sharp

The world has been eagerly awaiting the 2012 Summer Olympics, but there’s a way to get your Olympic fix right in your own community—without waiting another four years for the excitement to begin again. Special Olympic competitions, training and fundraising events happen year round in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

When Special Olympics are mentioned, most people would picture a yearly event in a high school stadium packed full of student volunteers cheering on the athletes. Special Olympics is not just an annual event, it’s a year-round organization that trains athletes and leaders to succeed.

“We do a lot more than the community is aware of,” says Jessica Barrale, county coordinator for Escambia and Santa Rosa County’s Special Olympic programs.

Barrale become involved with Special Olympics in July of 2011, while looking for a purposeful job in marketing and communication. She is the non-profit’s only employee, but not because there isn’t plenty to do.

“It’s like five jobs in one,” Barrale said.

The Escambia and Santa Rosa Special Olympics program has experienced a lack of stability in leadership, so the program is in need of what Barrale calls “re-building.” She has high hopes for the future of the program and wants to see it grow, but the program struggles to gain more community support because people don’t understand that Special Olympics is much more than an annual track and field event.

There are 12 different sports offered by Special Olympics, ranging from basketball and soccer to sailing and bocce ball. All of the sports are coached by volunteers or athletes in the Athlete Leadership Program.

MORE THAN A MEDAL
Special Olympic athletes benefit from what is truly healthy competition. Susan Berry, principal of Escambia Westgate School, explained that her students can better perform in the classroom by participating in the physical activity that Special Olympics provides them. Working large muscle groups improves cognitive function and concentration in the classroom environment, as well as helping all of the athletes work out negative feelings that are one of the obstacles of living with their disability.

Participating in sports gives Special Olympic athletes the chance to be celebrated for their achievements and to be a part of a team. They get the same benefits as any other athletes would after competition: pride, joy, and satisfaction.

“That’s just electrifying to me,” said Berry.

Special Olympic athletes can also lose, just like any other athletes. There are officials, rules, and scoreboards. Athletes train for a minimum of eight to 12 weeks for each sport, competing locally and on a statewide level. Special Olympics in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties also offer free health screenings to participants. The Athlete Leadership Program is another way for participants to benefit, with the opportunity for positions as coaches, officials, team captains, and spokespeople available.

The champions of Special Olympics are all ages, from eight to 98. Many of the athletes involved with Special Olympics live at or below poverty level, so Special Olympics provides transportation for all training and events and fundraises to help cover the cost of competition travel.

This program is more than just a way to get exercise. It’s a community of devoted athletes and volunteers who give their all for the love of the game. But these aren’t the only people who are positively impacted by Special Olympics, the community wins right along with the teams.

When the community as a whole embraces Special Olympics, it embraces inclusion. These athletes learn, through their athletic achievements, how to become more active citizens in the community. They gain confidence, and the volunteers involved with Special Olympics gain along with them.

“They’re able to see things differently,” says Barrale. “We’re all the same, essentially.”

CHEER ON THE CHAMPIONS
With only an estimated 20 percent of eligible athletes participating in both Escambia and Santa Rosa county, all the good that comes out of this organization could be greatly increased. This requires not only resources, but also support from the communities served. Barrale aims to educate the public on the Special Olympic program and all of its benefits.

“It’s been a bit neglected,” she said.

The volunteers and athletes host sporting events like their Mardi Gras 5k run and sponsorship drives like their Earth Day Tennis Team drawing to fund travel expenses, which account for the biggest financial burden of the program.

According to Barrale, if more local business leaders could step up and support the program they could greatly improve Special Olympics in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. More funds would mean more athletes able to travel to out-of-town events, the possibility of providing more transportation and adding sports for the Santa Rosa county athletes.

But beyond fundraising, Berry hopes to see bigger crowds for the athlete’s events. In a town that is so enthusiastic about sports, she would urge people to come and support the Special Olympics just like they would any other local sports team.

“I mean the community comes out for the Blue Wahoos,” she said. “It would be nice for them to come out for special needs [athletes].”

The Escambia and Santa Rosa county athletes just got back from the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex to participate in the State Summer Games. About 6,300 athletes, coaches and family members were a part of this event. The athletes won four gold, 12 silver and 13 bronze medals.

“We had an awesome time,” Barrale said. “We played our best, represented Escambia County and brought home lots of medals.”

SPECIAL OLYMPICS ESCAMBIA COUNTY
DETAILS: specialolympicsescambia.org