Special Olympics volunteers share in the athletes' joy

Thursday, May 31, 2012 | 7:05 p.m. CDT; updated 7:49 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 31, 2012
Volunteers, whether new or returning veterans, are a vital part of the Special Olympics State Summer Games. For both volunteers and athletes, taking part in the games is a gratifying experience

COLUMBIA — Daniel Anderson first heard about the Special Olympics State Summer Games at 9 a.m. Tuesday from a friend. He didn't need much persuasion to participate.

By Wednesday morning, Anderson was driving from his home in Jefferson City  to help with the bowling competition.

"The best thing is seeing their faces when it's their time to bowl — just how excited they get when they are doing what they love to do," Anderson said.

Anderson is among those filling 1,500 volunteer slots for the four-day games in Columbia. Volunteer registration closed Sunday, but Ben Stewart, public relations coordinator for the games, said "quite a few" people have shown up right before the events to lend a hand.

The games conclude Friday with the basketball competition, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the MU Student Recreation Complex. Stewart said he expects a good volunteer turnout Friday, but that more volunteers are always appreciated.

First-time volunteers Tim Struckhoff and Zach Oberdieckworked with the long jump competitors at Walton Stadium on Wednesday. As sports management majors, both said that being involved with Special Olympics gives them great experience for their future careers.

As a football player at Missouri State University, Struckhoff said being a volunteer lets him see the athletes from a different perspective.

"It's a joy because you get to put a smile on their faces and yours as well," he said.

Another first-time volunteer, Hayden DeSha had the enviable job of handing out medals at the bowling event at Town and Country Lanes. The competitors made a strong impression on him.

"All of the kids have fun, no matter what they are doing, even if they are just sitting down talking," DeSha said. "I definitely see myself coming back again."

Stewart said a majority of this year's estimated 850 volunteers through Thursday's events come from mid-Missouri and corporate sponsors, such as Learfield Communications and Mid-America Wireless. Also, Columbia is an ideal spot for the games because MU and Stephens and Columbia colleges provide volunteers, he said.

New volunteers participate each year, but Stewart said the games have a base who return every summer.

"They are a part of the family, and it would be surprising not to see them each year," Stewart said.

Kim Childress is participating in the games for her 10th year, this time volunteering at the bowling competition. A special education teacher for Skyline High School in Urbana, Childress participates in Missouri's State Youth Activation Committee, which promotes unity in schools between students diagnosed with disabilities and those who aren't.

"It's important to bring awareness to our schools and to show that these men and women are just like them," Childress said. "They just learn differently."

Lisa Hagness, a special education teacher from Hermitage, said she feels great pride when she sees each Special Olympian with a medal around his or her neck. But she knows the joy they feel outweighs any gold or silver medal.

"Special Olympians don't care where they finish, as long as they enjoy doing it," she said.

To Hagness, the ultimate goal of the Special Olympics is inclusion. "Special Olympics is like one big family — once you meet someone, you know them forever," she said.

Marines Peter Stark and Derek Allison traveled from Fort Leonard Wood to volunteer along with a handful of other men and women training to become military police. 

Stark said their main role has been to set up and tear down the equipment at the track and field and bowling competitions. Allison was impressed by the demeanor of the athletes, calling them humble and team-oriented.

Amanda Noelker volunteered along with 10 other University of Missouri Sports Medicine employees to monitor the health and well-being of competitors and volunteers. So far, athletes have been treated for heat-related illnesses and minor cuts and scrapes, she said. 

"It's very satisfying to be a part of this," Noelker said. 

Crystal Chalk, the associate area director for Special Olympics' Central Area, said the events would not be possible without the volunteers, calling them the backbone of the summer games.

Chalk was happy with the level of volunteerism from Columbia and Boone County, saying that most of the volunteers walking around at Thursday's basketball event were local.

From her discussions with many of them, they seem to be getting the most out their volunteer experience, she said. "Very rarely does a volunteer come out of this place without a smile." 

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey:; 882-5720.

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