Special Olympics brings smiles, friendship to communities
For over 50 years, the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania has offered those with special needs a chance to build friendships, learn important life skills and, above all, have fun while engaging in physical activities and sports with others.
“The mission of the Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and competition for special needs individuals eight years of age and older,” said Lester Loner, training coordinator for Lycoming County Special Olympics. “Presently we offer, I believe, 12 different sports and we have about 125 athletes in Lycoming County.”
“We have local competitions and then from local competitions, athletes are selected to go to regional competitions and then they may advance onto state competition,” said Loner. “Lycoming County will have four individuals, hopefully, going to Florida in June (2022), which is held down in Disney. It’s a seven-day competition for athletes all across the United States, so it’s quite an honor to be selected to get to do that.”
The Lycoming County Special Olympics doesn’t just help coordinate athletic activities for its athletes, it also makes it a point to help the athletes develop in their personal lives as well.
“We are a sports organization, but we do help with a lot of other things. In the past, we’ve tried to help some people find employment,” Loner said. “Maybe some people that wanted to move away from their parents and get out on their own, help them get some apartments to rent and things like that. So, we are a sports organization but we offer a lot of opportunities to the individuals also.”
These opportunities have had an enormous impact on the lives of countless athletes, including Cathy Keenan, who, when asked what she likes best about the Special Olympics, said, “… I like having friends and competing against athletes that are my ability.”
Much like other outreach organizations in the area, the Lycoming County Special Olympics have been forced to grapple with and work around the pandemic.
“We’re slowly making our way back,” said Loner. “…In the beginning, it was very difficult because we weren’t allowed to do in-person training, we couldn’t go and meet with the athletes, we couldn’t work with them individually one-on-one. So, we did some virtual training. The state offered a lot of opportunities, such as the Stride challenge where they would work with the athletes and record their distances over a given time period.”
But, as Loner pointed out, the switch to virtual events during the pandemic was not an ideal solution for all athletes.
“We had a lot of athletes that didn’t feel comfortable participating in that aspect,” he said. “A lot of them live at home, or they’re in group homes and they didn’t really have the opportunity to do that. So not only our program, but other programs, had difficulty keeping our athletes engaged. And then, of course, the population that we serve is not necessarily the healthiest all the time. So it affected them.”
The pandemic has not only affected the organization’s ability to host athletic events, but, as Loner points out, it has also had an effect on the amount of fundraisers the group has been able to hold over the past two years.
“The other fundraisers that we do, such as the Hiawatha rental and other public fundraising events, have not been possible because of COVID,” he said.
Another fundraiser Loner says the organization missed out on because of the pandemic was the annual Frostbite 5-Mile Run and 5K Walk, which will return this year in DuBoistown on Dec. 12 at 1 p.m.
“We leave by the firehall there, in DuBoistown, and we work our way out through Mosquito Valley…out to the water filtration plant and we turn around, come back and finish by the Valley Inn. It’s a 5-mile run and then there is also a 5K walk. So there are two events that go on at the same time.”
This year, participants may take part in the race either on the official day of the race or virtually at any time they desire. Those who sign up for the race, whether in-person or virtually, will receive a long sleeved tee shirt, and those who sign up to take part day-of will automatically be eligible for door prizes to be awarded at the conclusion of the event.
As pandemic restrictions continue to ease across the nation, Loner says he is glad to see in-person events returning for the athletes.
“Although the Special Olympics is a sports organization, a lot of the individuals that participate do so for the camaraderie with the other athletes and they miss that,” Loner said. “We’re glad that we’re able to get back to the in-person stuff.”
Loner also says that although restrictions are beginning to ease, event coordinators are taking every precaution necessary to ensure that their athletes and volunteers remain safe.
“We’re taking all of the precautions we can,” he said. “We’re necessary with social distance, we wear a mask if we’re required…the state’s doing a good job of trying to keep everyone safe so that we can continue to operate.”
On top of getting back to in-person activities, local Special Olympics athletes have also been recently featured on a River Valley Transit bus, showcasing their accomplishments and helping to bring more public awareness to their cause.
And there is no doubt that the athletes are also excited to get back out on the field and back into the swing of things, with many remarking how much they enjoy the friendships and camaraderie they have found as members of their respective Special Olympic teams.
“My favorite sports are soccer, basketball and bowling. I enjoy being on a team, being around other athletes and having fun,” said athlete Neil Schweikart.
The sentiment was echoed by his fellow local athlete, Ryan Kenney, who said that his favorite sport to play is soccer and, “I enjoy going to competitions, getting medals, being with my friends on the team and encouraging them to do their best.”
Those who wish to volunteer with, or who may be interested in taking part in the activities held by the Lycoming County Special Olympics, can get in contact with event organizers in a variety of ways including on Facebook or through the Lycoming County Special Olympics website.
Loner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 570-433-1765.
“We always are looking for volunteers, like any other service organization is,” he said. “Even more so, with COVID.”