Maranda Way and her mom, Tina Hillmer, felt so overwhelmed with excitement and happiness when friends, family and Special Olympics Forsyth County members surprised them both with statewide awards this past Friday that they simply could not hold back their tears.
Coaches had originally nominated them for the awards because of their hard work and dedication not only to Special Olympics, but also to the community and all of those involved in the program. Those nominations go directly to a committee with Special Olympics Georgia who then chooses winners from throughout the state.
Out of nearly 27,000 athletes, Way won the 2020 Female Athlete of the Year award, and Hillmer, coincidentally the only other award-winner in Forsyth County, also won the 2020 Volunteer of the Year award.
Usually the awards are given out during the opening ceremonies for the state games, but Special Olympics Forsyth County Coordinator Linda Fitzpatrick said the games were cancelled this year. As a way to give the news to Hillmer and her daughter, Fitzpatrick invited friends, families and coworkers to surprise both of them with a drive-by parade and awards ceremony this past Friday at Central Park.
“We wanted to try to make it as special as possible,” Fitzpatrick said.
Neither Way or Hillmer knew they had each won an award yet when Fitzpatrick decided to plan the parade. She did not want them to find out through a simple phone call or email. She wanted the experience to be special in some way for the both of them. She told Hillmer that Way had won the award so that she could set up a plan to bring her daughter to the park, but Hillmer didn’t know she had also won an award.
Everyone parked their cars in the parking lot beside that gym at Central Park, placing congratulatory signs and decorating the parking lot with balloons and streamers. They also put up speakers by the gym area around a bench to give the pair a place to receive their awards.
While everyone finished setting up, Fitzpatrick went to pick up Way and Hillmer in her convertible to head to what Way thought would be just a quick meeting. When they arrived at the park, everyone in the parking lot started cheering, waving their signs and yelling out, “Congratulations!” or “We love you, Maranda!”
Way, sitting on top of the back seat in the convertible for everyone to see, started crying immediately when she saw all the people there to congratulate her. She waved to everyone as Fitzpatrick slowly drove by, and when they stopped the car, Fitzpatrick led her up to the bench by the gym to officially hand over her award.
After remaining in the Special Olympics Forsyth County program for about eight years, Way has been involved in powerlifting, aquatics and equestrian, working with coaches, her parents and others in the community to sharpen her skills and earn medals and new accolades.
Way also works at a local Kroger on Freedom Parkway where she has been recognized for her hard work, dedication, attention to detail and positivity.
“For Maranda to accomplish this and earn this distinguished award, it takes a lot of hard work,” Fitzpatrick said. “It takes a lot of individual perseverance on her part. It’s a lot of dedication and hard work from her coaches, the people that she works with at Kroger, the community. And just as much as it’s a lot of hard work, it’s a labor of love for her parents and the support that they provide to her.”
Fitzpatrick said that it has been apparent over the years just how much the program means to Hillmer just through the hours upon hours of work that she puts into it. After recognizing Way, Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Special Olympics Forsyth County board surprised HIllmer with the Volunteer of the Year award.
Board members immediately brought forward a banner, congratulating Hillmer on the accomplishment: “We are thankful for you,” the banner reads.
Fitzpatrick said that Hillmer not only works as a full-time parent and full-time real estate agent, but she also gives any and all free time that she may or may not have to the program and community. She serves as a coach for the program and as a parent liaison, who helps out coaches and other members when needed, and she and Way, for at least the past three years, have raised the most money selling raffle tickets and participating in fundraisers than any other member.
Whether it comes down to organizing an event or fundraiser, designing or selling merchandise or just volunteering time where it’s needed, Fitzpatrick said that she knows she can always count on Hillmer, calling her the program’s go-to volunteer.
“Tina has worked so hard, and she’s just dedicated any free time — free time that she didn’t even have — to support our program and to support the growth and development of her child and all of the other children and athletes, not just her daughter,” Fitzpatrick said. “She’s just an extremely unselfish, caring, loving person. It’s very, very emotional for us.”
As Hillmer accepted her award, Fitzpatrick laid out what defines a volunteer in her eyes and in the eyes of everyone else in the program.
“Someone who is dedicated and makes a difference, is a contributor whether it’s to the community or to their organization,” Fitzpatrick said. “It is a person who has a passion for serving and helping others and making a difference in people’s lives. It’s someone who voluntarily gives him or herself and serves with nothing in return except for that warm feeling that you get in the bottom of your heart when you put your head down on the pillow at night and know that you did well.”
To close out the night, the board handed out individually packaged cupcakes and water while everyone stopped by to congratulate and take photos with the two award-winners. Friends and family handed over flowers and other gifts to Way and Hillmer and shared hugs before leaving.
“It was an amazing day,” Fitzpatrick said.