Volunteer organization is key to Special Olympics’ success | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Volunteer organization is key to Special Olympics’ success

Chad Sellmer, Tribune staff writer

Volunteerism takes on a whole new meaning at Special Olympics events: the meaning of having fun.

Both volunteers and participants can testify to this. They gathered at Heavenly Ski Resort, as well as two other spots around the lake on Tuesday to run time trials in a host of snow-related events, including Alpine skiing and snowboarding in both giant slalom and downhill, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The Heavenly events are co-sponsored by the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

Fresno Fire coach Dave Kawakami knows a little something about volunteering for Special Olympics. This is his 23rd year, and he said being a volunteer coach has many rewards. He was busy helping his team get pumped up, along with munching on some sandwiches, on some bleachers outside the California Base Lodge.

“Coaching is the best part of Special Olympics because you get to work with the athletes, to teach them and watch as they progress, making that perfect turn and getting into their races,” Kawakami said.

Special Olympics is an international program of year-round sports competition and training for more than one million children and adults with mental retardation and/or developmental disabilities. Born in the 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver turned her Maryland home into a day camp for people with mental retardation, the first International Special Olympics was first held at Soldier Field, Chicago in 1968, with more than 1,000 athletes participating. It now includes both summer and winter events ranging from figure skating, aquatics, golf and Bocce to snowboarding, powerlifting and hockey.

Kenny Trexler of Yuba City, a games management official for the Northern California Region, began volunteering 30 years ago as a youngster in the Air Force.

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“The Air Force was a big sponsor of the Special Olympics back in the ’60s,” Trexler said. “I got hooked in 1973 in Merced. I think the most rewarding part is to watch the athletes develop and grow over the years.”

Trexler noted that Special Olympians can range in age from 8 to 80 years old, male or female.

“I made the mistake in my early years of once calling someone a girl and she turned to me and said, ‘I’ll have you know I have two grandkids’,” he said.

Event downhill preliminaries occured Tuesday at Heavenly, with qualifying races beginning today at 9:15 a.m. Awards will be given out after the races. The 60-some participants represent mostly northeastern California, including El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Yolo, Lassen and Plumas counties. Some come from as far as the Bay Area, Napa Valley and Central Valley.

Winners of regional events have the opportunity to advance to the world games, held every four years with both summer and winter venues in exotic locales like Japan and Ireland. Another state event will be held March 10-13 at Kirkwood.

Perry Obray, an off-and-on South Tahoe resident for the past 20 years, is in his very first season of volunteering and seemed to be enjoying the experience.

“I was volunteering at a senior center and they mentioned something about Special Olympics,” Obray said. “One, I love being on the snow, and two, I love seeing the kids get really excited. It’s priceless to see the look on their faces.”

Special Olympics can also present unseen challenges, he added.

“It helps me adjust my teaching style and forces me to be a more creative instructor,” he said.

South Tahoe High School freshman Michella Smith has been involved in Special Olympics activities for three years, although this is her first on a snowboard. She also competes in skiing, swimming, bowling and softball.

“I like the fun things we do all year-round,” Smith said. “We have a great time in Special Olympics.”