By Camden Smith
On your mark, get set, go! The March 5 Summer County Games for Special Olympics Collier County hosted 71 athletes in more than 10 athletic events serving as qualifiers for the regional or Area Summer Games in Charlotte County the end of March.
Lori Lefferts, 33, has been competing in Special Olympics since the age of eight, and her father Dale says her pride in participating is what drives her.
“In her bedroom, she has a trophy case literally of 25 years of metals and ribbons she’s earned throughout the years, and it’s truly a matter of pride for her. When we have folks over, she enjoys showing off her accomplishments,” Dale Lefferts said as he smiled.
Story after story families talk about how their Special Olympics athlete is thrilled with the opportunity to show his or her abilities. Special Olympics provides year-round sports training for individuals with intellectual special needs and offers Special Olympics events throughout the year.
When asked what she liked about the Summer County Games, athlete Wendy Turicos, 18, said, “It’s so fun.”
The Summer County Games included a number of competitions and two of the toughest were shot put, a canon ball throw event, and the long jump. Spectators commented that the two females in the long jump, Wendy Turicos and Nikita Gibson, seemed to fly higher than any of them could think about.
Behind the athletes are strong families, just as a committed volunteer base is behind Special Olympics Collier County, volunteers like Marco Island Area Board of Realtors President Bill Filbin. Filbin has volunteered for the organization for 21 years and is the longest running volunteer.
“Now, I’m getting young realtors from Marco Island involved to support Special Olympics to bring in renewed energy, and this rejuvenates you when you seehow hard these athletes work,” Filbin said.
In fact, the Fundraising Director of Special Olympics Collier County, Sue Palmer, began as a volunteer in 1989. She said consistent volunteers play a key role as well as the organization’s mission to ensure every athlete receives an award make Special Olympics unique and inspiring.
“Every time you see awards especially since some of these athletes have received awards every year for 10, 20 years, and every year they receive a new award and it’s like their first. You can see the excitement on their faces,” Palmer said.
Local McDonald’s chain owner Tom O’Reilly donated lunch for everyone at the event as he has for the last eight years, and he says there is nothing more rewarding.
“I think you get immediate feedback from the athletes and you can see the joy in their faces,” O’Reilly said.
Not only are the parents and families proud of the athletes, but it is a way for those with intellectual disabilities, according to Lori Lefferts’ father Dale, to be a part of something important.
Lefferts said, “It levels the playing field for them in life. Instead of competing in a job market, they’re able to compete on a playing field, and Lori’s an athlete so it gives her the ability to participate with other athletes at her level of ability.”
The County Games qualify athletes for the Area Games, and then they have the chance to move on to the State Games held in Walt Disney World in May.
In Special Olympics, as it should be in life, it is not all about winning. Instead, it is about helping others and showing those with special needs they are valued.
Special Olympics Collier County welcomes volunteers and donations, (239) 775-1991 – www.SpecialOlympicsCollier.org
Area Games are on March 26 (Sunday) and State Games are May 13-15 at Disney Wide World of Sports in Orlando.