LEBANON – Sports are a great many things to a great many people. That’s what gives them their charm, their universal appeal.
Sports are therapeutic, they have the power to heal. Sports are social and relationship building. Sports are fun and can create joy. And at their most primitive, sports are physical activity and exercise.
Special Olympics can cause us to think of sports in an entirely different way, almost all of which are positive. As evidenced by the Quad County Bowling Invitational, which was contested recently at Palmyra Bowling, Special Olympics in Lebanon County is strong, because of the spirit of the competitors, the dedication of volunteers and the vision and driving energy exuded by county manager Joan Sechrist.
“Sports are an important part of life,” said Sechrist, who’s been in her position at the head of Lebanon County Special Olympics for ten years. “I think most of us have a competitive nature. We love the thrill of sports. For a lot of our athletes, they don’t have things like this. It’s a physical program for them. It’s a social program for them. And it’s free. I’ve got to pay to go to a gym. It’s something they can own. They’re very proud of their accomplishments.
“The physical aspect of sports is good for any body,” continued Sechrist. “Special Olympics offers athletes competition. It gives them physical fitness and joy. It’s highly therapeutic. Depression is out there. They’re so proud. They look forward to it. It’s definitely one of the most important things to some of them.”
The Quad Bowling Invitational is more than just athletes from four counties getting together and rolling balls down alleys at pins. It is a celebration of sports – of life – Special Olympics style.
Some 80 bowlers competed – 24 of whom were from Lebanon County. Anytime scores are recorded, you know it’s important. And the hardware and ribbons presented only served to reinforce that fact.
“It was a great day,” said Sechrist. “Everyone enjoyed it. You know it’s going well when everyone is smiling.
“Oh yeah, it was competitive,” continued Sechrist. “Scores were kept and there were medals. And they used handicaps. What we’re taking after is the real Olympics. Soccer is played by soccer rules. Tennis is played by tennis rules. We can adapt the rules, but it is the real thing.”
“I do it to meet other people,” said Joe Kirby, who’s competed in Lebanon County Special Olympics for 30 years. “I do it to make friends and stuff like that. I do it to meet people and hang out.”
To qualify for Special Olympics, athletes must have IQs under 90. Currently, 270 local residents are enrolled in Special Olympics, and the program is supported by more than 150 volunteers.
Some are afflicted with Downs Syndrome or Autism or Delayed Learning.
“It should be much more than that. It’s a shame,” said Sechrist of the number of people currently competing in Lebanon County Special Olympics. “Yes, we call them athletes. They’re children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Some have physical issues, but a lot of it is mental issues.
“A lot of people don’t know about Special Olympics,” Sechrist added. “A lot of people will say, ‘What day is Special Olympics?’But there are only six weeks throughout the year when we don’t offer sports. Then, we just take a break. It is a misconception. I have a hard time getting the word out about it. There are national games. There are even world games.”
While Special Olympics are modeled after the real Olympics, they are not a series of sporting events contested at one place at one time. They are contested throughout the year.
Lebanon County Special Olympics also hosts a swim meet at Lebanon Valley College in March and a gymnastics meet at Paramount Sports in Palmyra in May. In all, the local Special Olympics offers 14 sports over three seasons – volleyball, soccer, long distance walking and running, bocce and power lifting in the fall, floor hockey in the winter and gymnastics, bowling, baseball, golf, tennis, softball, swimming and track and field in the spring.
“Winning is important to our athletes,” said Sechrist. “To me, not as much. I’d like to see them have an opportunity to show what they can do. But to some, it’s the world.
“It can be very social,” Sechrist continued. “I’ve seen people cry because they didn’t want to leave their parents. Now the same people just glow and they’re so positive about things. When they get in there, the camaraderie is there. They feel part of a team. It makes a difference.”
Through fund-raising, Lebanon County Special Olympics covers the costs of things like athletes’ uniforms, transportation and overnight expenses.
“We raise the money to get them there,” said Sechrist. “We have a management team, and they set up training places. The coaches have a game plan. You do drills and skills, and then you play.
“We also offer unified sports for bowling, golf, softball and soccer,” continued Sechrist. “In those sports, 50 percent of the athletes have intellectual disabilities and 50 percent do not. The other half are mostly volunteers. We are always looking for unified partners.”
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