For more than 50 years, the Special Olympics in Pennsylvania has offered people with special needs a chance to form friendships, learn important life skills, and most importantly, have fun while engaging in life. physical and sports activities with others.
“The mission of the Special Olympics is to provide year-round athletic training and competition for people with special needs aged eight and over. “ said Lester Loner, training coordinator for the Lycoming County Special Olympics. “Right now we have, I believe, 12 different sports and we have about 125 athletes in Lycoming County. “
“We have local competitions, then from local competitions, athletes are selected to participate in regional competitions, then they can move on to state competition,” Solitaire said. “Lycoming County will hopefully have four people going to Florida in June (2022), which is being held at Disney. It’s a seven-day competition for athletes from all over the United States, it’s therefore, quite an honor to be selected to do so.
The Lycoming County Special Olympics don’t only help coordinate the athletic activities of its athletes, they also make a point of helping athletes develop in their personal lives as well.
“We are a sports organization, but we help with a lot of other things. In the past, we have tried to help some people find a job ”, Solitaire said. “Maybe some people who wanted to get away from their parents and go out on their own, help them find apartments to rent and things like that. So we are a sports organization but we also offer a lot of opportunities to individuals. “
These opportunities have had a huge impact on the lives of countless athletes, including Cathy Keenan, who, when asked what she loves most about Special Olympics, said: “… I like having friends and competing with athletes who are my abilities. “
Much like other outreach organizations in the region, Lycoming County Special Olympics has been forced to tackle and bypass the pandemic.
“We are coming back slowly” Solitaire said. “… At the beginning it was very difficult because we weren’t allowed to train in person, we couldn’t go and meet the athletes, we couldn’t work with them individually one-on-one. So we did a virtual training. The state offered many opportunities, like the Stride challenge where they would work with the athletes and record their distances over a period of time.
But, as Loner pointed out, switching to virtual events during the pandemic was not an ideal solution for all athletes.
“We had a lot of athletes who didn’t feel comfortable participating in this aspect. “ he said. “A lot of them live at home or in group homes and they haven’t really had the opportunity to do so. So not only our program, but other programs, have struggled to keep our athletes engaged. And then, of course, the population we serve is not necessarily always the healthiest. So it affected them.
The pandemic not only affected the organization’s ability to host sporting events, but, as Loner points out, it also had an effect on the number of fundraisers the group was able to host over the past two years. last years.
“The other fundraisers we do, such as the Hiawatha rental and other public fundraising events, have not been possible due to COVID,” he said.
Another fundraiser, Loner, said the organization had missed due to the pandemic was the annual Frostbite 5-Mile Run and 5K Walk, which returns this year to DuBoistown on December 12 at 1 p.m.
“We start by the fire station over there in DuBoistown, and we make our way through Mosquito Valley… to the water filtration plant and we turn around, come back and end up the Valley Inn. It’s a 5 mile run and then there’s a 5 mile walk as well. So there are two events happening at the same time.
This year, participants can take part in the race either on official race day or virtually at any time they wish. Those who register for the race, whether in person or virtually, will receive a long-sleeved t-shirt, and those who register to participate the same day will automatically be eligible for door prizes which will be awarded at the end. of the event. .
As pandemic restrictions continue to ease across the country, Loner says he’s happy to see in-person events return for athletes.
“Although Special Olympics is a sports organization, a lot of the people who participate in it do so for the camaraderie with other athletes and they miss it. “ Solitaire said. “We’re happy to be able to get back to it in person. “
Loner also says that while restrictions are starting to ease, event coordinators are taking all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their athletes and volunteers.
“We take all possible precautions” he said. “We are necessary with social distancing, we wear a mask if we are required… the state does a good job of trying to protect everyone so that we can continue to function. “
In addition to returning to life in person, local Special Olympics athletes were also recently featured on a River Valley Transit bus, showcasing their accomplishments and helping to raise awareness of their cause.
And there is no doubt that the athletes are also excited to return to the field and get back into the mix, with many noticing how much they value the friendships and camaraderie they have found as members of their Olympic teams. respective specials.
“My favorite sports are soccer, basketball and bowling. I like being part of a team, being surrounded by other athletes and having fun ”, said athlete Neil Schweikart.
The sentiment was echoed by fellow local athlete Ryan Kenney, who said his favorite sport to play was soccer and, “I love going to competitions, winning medals, being with my friends on the team and encouraging them to do their best.
Those interested in volunteering or who might be interested in participating in the activities organized by the Lycoming County Special Olympics can get in touch with the event organizers in a variety of ways, including on Facebook or through the Games website. Lycoming County Special Olympics.
Loner can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 570-433-1765.
“We are always looking for volunteers, like any other service organization”, he said. “Even more, with COVID. “