Basketball, bowling, soccer, softball and volleyball are all sports available to many of us through school or recreational leagues. However, these teams often require tryouts and are not at a level appropriate for individuals with disabilities. The Special Olympics fills this void and provides athletics to men, women, boys and girls with disabilities.
That's not to say that these sporting events aren't competitive. And they definitely follow the rules.
"We consider ourselves an athletic organization. We are not challenged people dancing around happy. We keep score. And we believe that, for instance, at our track meets - running out of the lane is a disqualification," says local Special Olympics director Darrin Burnett. "It's an insult to say (the athletes) don't get it. They do get it."
The athletes have been "getting it" for a while now. Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. And today, it is the world's largest program of athletics for children and adults with disabilities. There are more than 1.7 million athletes worldwide in 150 nations.
In Springfield, athletes eligible to participate in the Special Olympics fall into Area 17, which serves Sangamon and Menard counties.
Area 17 serves 450 athletes in the central Illinois area. Athletes can compete in 19 sports at dozens of annual events statewide.
At a typical event, there are fewer than 150 athletes competing. However, the Spring Games draw many more athletes from around the state. The Spring Games, held May 10 at Glenwood High School, had close to 200 athletes participating. But the area's softball event is the big one.
"We'll have around 30-40 teams, so we'll have 400-500 athletes," Burnett says.
The District C Softball competition is July 25 at the Lincoln Land Community College Softball complex.
"We'll have teams from all over the state. They come from Galesburg and Bloomington and all the way down south. Its softball and tee ball," Burnett says. "And we need volunteers who can score games."
Although the main focus of the games is the athletes, there are many more people involved behind the scenes who help make the Special Olympics the empire it is today.
Families, friends and volunteers help keep the operation running. In Area 17 there are several hundred registered volunteers.
"The number of volunteers varies from event to event. The average event takes 25-50 volunteers. But the Spring Games are volunteer intensive. We need anywhere from 75-100," Burnett says.
If you've got a lot of knowledge about a particular sport, you are in high demand at the events.
"We need people with specific talents depending on the event," Burnett says.
But that's not to say if you aren't knowledgeable in sports you can't volunteer. Anyone who wants to volunteer is welcome.
"Whether you know nothing about sports or are completely athletic, we'll still find a spot for you," Burnett says.
"We couldn't do anything without volunteers. I'm the only paid employee in Area 17. We pay our volunteers in T-shirts and ham sandwich lunches. We get volunteers from local schools. Local business, AT&T and local law enforcement are a huge help in this area."
Aside from the athletes and volunteers, fundraising is a big part of what helps keep the Special Olympics thriving in central Illinois.
"The Polar Plunge is the biggest and most famous fundraiser," Burnett says. "Other funding comes from donations. Organizations have fundraisers for us and donate the proceeds, and mail-in donations are accepted."
Funding also comes from individuals, corporate sponsorship and grants. And the athletes benefit directly from all donations.
"Seventy percent of our funds are for events for athletes," Burnett says.
Events available to the athletes thanks to funding are alpine skiing, aquatics, athletics, basketball, bocceball, bowling, cross country skiing, equestrian, floor hockey, golf, motor activities training program, power lifting, soccer, volleyball, unified bocce and unified golf.
Want more information? Interested in volunteering?
Contact Area 17 Director Darrin Burnett
Address: 413 E. Adams St., Springfield, IL 62705-1823
Web site: www.soill.org
Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )