Special Olympics are special for many reasons

Next week, Campbell River is sending some athletes off to the nationals for Special Olympics: Ashley Adie, Hazen Meade, Nathan Luoma, Callum Maclagan, Paul Aubuchon. They will be joined by coaches Sandy Ott, Ann Jorgensen and George Maclagan.

This July marks the 50th anniversary of these games for people who face various intellectual challenges, so it’s an extra special year for a special event.

I confess one of the most embarrassing moments for me as a first-year reporter came when a Special Olympics coach asked about getting some coverage. Sheepishly, she mentioned the editor, who had recently been fired for too many reasons to list here, had told her she was only interested in getting her kid’s picture in the paper. To this, she had replied she didn’t even have a child in Special Olympics but had simply volunteered to coach.

I covered my face with my hand and sighed. Of course, we could set something up, I told her, and from then on we had a great relationship with the local chapter.

The whole episode, as I told the coach, was especially embarrassing for me as my sister Sheila, or “Eeshla Oochnard,” as she called herself, had been an active participant in Special Olympics. Special Olympics provides sporting opportunities for people with varying intellectual abilities; my sister had Down syndrome.

The terms have changed over time, but I’m used to using Down syndrome, so I’ll stick to it. My apologies. My mom always called Sheila and her friends the “Doughnut Kids” as a term of endearment, and I always kind of liked it.

At one event, the local newspaper snapped a shot of Sheila proudly wearing a medal around her neck, her eyes closed, as she could never keep them open for a photograph until she got dementia in her late 40s. This photo my mom had reprinted and framed, and it sat on the bookcase in our family room for years.

There is a temptation here to simply focus on the feel-good aspect of the games and their competitors, and the Special Olympics do serve as a nice contrast, for example, to the money-driven world of professional sports.

There is, however, something more important at work here.

When I was young, people like my sister were typically cloistered away, hidden from the outside world.

I recalled how strangers, not just kids, but adults too, would stare at her when the family was out in public like they’d just seen an alien.

That Sheila was even living with us was unusual. When she was born, the medical staff encouraged my mom and dad to ship Sheila off to a home where others could look after her because that’s what everyone did back in 1955. My Aunt Lucille informed me how my parents would have none of this; Sheila, after all, was one of us. (If you’re interested in learning more of this history, I recommend historian David Wright’s book, Downs.)

In light of research now highlighting the importance of being held and eye-to-eye contact in terms of children’s early brain development, it’s no surprise so many, suffering from neglect, experienced serious intellectual impairment.

Yet now I see “Doughnut Kids,” who have been given love and support early on, grow up to function at a higher level than was the norm not so long ago.

Events like the Special Olympics should then remind us of what people, even those facing serious challenges, can achieve if given support, especially when they’re young.

By the way, to help athletes in Special Olympics with their regular activities, the Campbell River chapter is holding its big fundraiser next month.

The 30th Annual Howie Meeker Golf Classic takes place Aug. 18 at the Storey Creek Golf Club, and it’s open to golfers of all levels. In the meantime, good luck to our local stars next week.