The Special Olympics in Forsyth County has come a long way in the past few years.
Susan Darlington, transition coordinator at Forsyth County Schools and leader of the Special Olympics program, said participation has nearly tripled over the past three years.
“We had over 300 athletes during the last spring games on April 22,” Darlington said. “In the 2005-2006 school year, we had roughly 100.”
Darlington said the county had two athletes go on to compete at state level competition that year.
“Now we have about 75 athletes in the state games,” she said.
Events themselves have also expanded in recent years.
Darlington said for many years the games only included spring activities, but since 2006 other winter and summer events have also become available to Forsyth’s special athletes. Among them are basketball, bocce ball, bowling, power lifting and softball.
Darlington said the success of the program, which allows special needs students and adults the opportunity to participate in recreational activities, is possible due to the support of the community.
A big part of that support comes from the more than 20 volunteer coaches who teach participants the skills they need to compete locally and at the state level in 13 different events.
Wayne Hancock has been a local Special Olympics coach for about six years, having guided basketball, softball and volleyball teams.
He said he first got involved with the local organization after working with a volunteer group through his employer at a state Special Olympics event at Emory University.
“I didn’t see big participation from Forsyth County and that motivated me to get involved locally,” he said.
Hancock said over the years he’s worked with more than 150 participants.
“What a true joy,” he said of working with the athletes. “They’re very surprising, very ambitious and very determined. There’s not a lot of quit in them.”
He said a big part of the coaches’ jobs is to push the athletes to excel.
“They want to be a part of mainstream competition and that’s been an obstacle for them, so [Special Olympics] gives them the opportunity to compete at the local, state and sometimes even national levels,” he said. “It’s a big, big deal for them. So we as coaches challenge them and they do excel when challenged.”
In fact, Hancock said there is plenty of inspiration to be found during the events.
“That’s really what keeps me going are those wow moments when you have to just sit back and go ‘wow,’” he said. “To see a dad cry over his 15-year-old son winning a gold medal, that’s a wow.”
But besides the joy of athletic competition, Darlington and Hancock said the athletes also gain much more from Special Olympics.
“It’s cool to see the ties that are built between the athletes,” Darlington said. “Some of these kids have never spent the night at another child’s house or gone to a movie with another kid before they meet people through Special Olympics.”
Added Hancock: “It develops a lot of friendships between families and the community. It builds self-esteem. I’ve seen a lot of shyness disappear and seen them blossom into great athletes and confident young adults.”
To better foster the social aspects of Special Olympics, the program has expanded to other social events outside of sports.
Darlington said the program includes bowling events, as well as a number of dances throughout the year.
Since 2006, the program has also increased its community ties.
Darlington said this summer, a new management board was formed to oversee many aspects of the program, such as fundraising, fund allocations, public relations and recruitment of volunteers and athletes.
The organization also joined the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce to “network with businesses and better connect to the community.”
Some short-term goals include developing a more professional Web site and creating more streamlined and consistent sponsorship levels, as well as continuously expanding the coaching base, Darlington said.
Leaders are also planning the organization’s two biggest fundraisers of the year: Battle of the Bats, a Special Olympics softball competition at Central Part which brings in teams from across the Southeast, on Aug. 27; and a 5K run at The Avenue Forsyth on Nov. 5.
Darlington said they also launch a new fundraiser later this month.
“We’ll be selling raffle tickets for two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the United States that AirTran flies and for a 40-inch LCD television,” Darlington said.
The tickets will be $5 and winners will be drawn at Battle of the Bats.
Fundraising efforts are essential, Darlington said.
“The athletes don’t pay for anything, not even their hotel or food costs, to go to state and national competitions,” she said. “Special Olympics Forsyth pays for everything.”
Darlington is amazed at the strides made over the past five years.
“We’ve truly been blessed,” she said.