Special Olympics of Fayette County builds skills and confidence | Helping the Helpers

‘What it means to me is getting to participate in sports, because in school, I wasn’t able to play in sports, and I can be in a team and help people,’ Haleigh Sommers, Special Olympics global messenger said

By: - December 13, 2021 6:30 am

Special Olympics Athlete Lenny Dziurzynski celebrates his frame at the Fayette County chapter bowling tournament at Manor Lanes in Hopwood on 11/14/21 (Uniontown Herald-Standard photo)

By Alyssa Choiniere

Thirty Fayette County athletes beamed with pride as medals were placed around their necks at the conclusion of the 2021 Special Olympics bowling tournament, after spending the morning cheering for their teammates.

(Capital-Star file)

Sports run year-round in Fayette County Special Olympics, with seven sports available to athletes with intellectual disabilities, said Karen Dreucci, who heads the local chapter.

Haleigh Sommers, Special Olympics global messenger and athlete representative, said Special Olympics affords her opportunities she missed in school.

“What it means to me is getting to participate in sports, because in school, I wasn’t able to play in sports, and I can be in a team and help people,” she said.

Dreucci said she has seen athletes give up their place in a race to help someone else cross the finish line.

“Our athletes are the most wonderful people in the world. It’s a whole different type of kindness and understanding,” she said.

She said athletes choose their sports and whether they want to compete. Some athletes work on skill-building, like learning how to dribble a ball. Athletes are grouped by ability and earn medals at competitions.

“I think it’s very meaningful to be able to participate. For some of the athletes, it’s really important socially to get out with other individuals with intellectual disabilities, especially for those who don’t live in group homes,” she said. “It gives them a real sense of accomplishment. It really boosts their sense of self-worth.”

  • IF YOU WANT TO HELP: Donations made on the national Special Olympics website are not distributed directly to the local chapter, she said. For more information or to donate, visit Special Olympics Pennsylvania – Fayette County and send a message or call Dreucci at 724-557-6480.

While Dale and Marian Cadwallader said they cannot speak for their son Sam, who is nonverbal, they have witnessed his growth through his 20 years of participation with Special Olympics.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t even get him into the gym to play basketball, so that’s a big step. I think it builds confidence,” Dale Cadwallader said, then turned to Sam and held his hand. “What do you think?”

Marian Cadwallader said the local program is excellent, and that it opens the doors to new opportunities for her son.

Special Olympics volunteer Linda Crenner places a medal around the neck of athlete Jessica Shimko at the Fayette County chapter bowling tournament at Manor Lanes in Hopwood, Pa. on 11/14/21 (Uniontown Herald-Standard photo)

“He gets so much exposure to people he doesn’t get otherwise,” Dale Cadwallader said.

Athlete Beth Kaider said her favorite part of Special Olympics is having her family watch her compete. She joined the Fayette County Special Olympics about 22 years ago, said her dad, Jerry Kaider.

“She’s been with them ever since it started,” he said.

Kaider said bowling is her favorite sport, and it is the most popular sport among Fayette County athletes, according to Dreucci.

But COVID-19 restrictions at group homes cut the number of athletes from the typical 100 to about 30. Only athletes who live at home were able to participate this year, because group homes have restricted travel for their residents.

While Dreucci said the restrictions are understandable, especially because many of their athletes have additional medical concerns, it is difficult for the athletes to miss out on the social interaction provided by the Special Olympics.

She said they held virtual programs, such as a “get out and move” event, where athletes were given an exercise every day and earned medals. A track and field coach also held virtual classes, she said, but not all of their athletes have internet access.

Dreucci said several of the athletes who are not yet able to participate have sent her text and Facebook messages.

“They’re just so anxious to get back, so hopefully we can get back into the swing of things as soon as possible,” she said.

Dreucci said they are bringing back their sports as quickly as they can, but some of the venues they used for practice, such as local schools, are not yet allowing outside groups.

“We’re trying to get back to all of the sports that we can,” she said. “We’re just trying to find ways to work around the hardships caused by COVID.”

She said Special Olympics is always in need of fundraising for basic operating costs, such as paying the venues and providing food to the athletes. She is also looking for additional coaches and other volunteers. Some volunteer opportunities do not require athletic ability, she said, but can involve greeting athletes and simple tasks like throwing basketballs back to athletes at practice.

Dreucci said she started with the organization about five years ago, and that it quickly became a passion.

“It’s a really a love of mine. I’ve only been with organization since 2016. Many volunteers have been with us years and years and years,” she said. “It’s just out of love, and it makes their lives happier.”

Alyssa Choiniere is a reporter for the Uniontown Herald-Standard. Readers may email her at [email protected]. Helping the Helpers is a cooperative effort between the Uniontown Herald-Standard and the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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