The Special Olympics uses sports as a way to showcase the skills and dignity of more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries, including some 2,500 who participate in the Memphis area. The Special Olympics began in 1968 as an opportunity to spread the message that people with intellectual disabilities can succeed when given the chance. The movement began July 20, 1968, with the first International Special Olympics Games in Chicago, but traces back to 1962 and a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities that Eunice Kennedy Shriver held at her home.
A misconception is that Special Olympics is a big event that takes place once a year. And while it is a big event, it’s one that takes place throughout the year. Special Olympics Greater Memphis provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in 19 programs that provide 13 sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics participants fit under a broad definition of people with intellectual disabilities. Most have autism, Down syndrome or mental retardation. To compete, participants generally are as young as 8 but a program for young athletes starts them as young as 2. Currently, the youngest athlete in Special Olympics Greater Memphis is 4 and the oldest is 76.
Those weekly programs take place across the Memphis area, from St. George’s Independent School’s pool in Collierville, Bellevue Baptist Church and the Memphis Jewish Community Center to Billy Hardwick’s All Star Lanes bowling alley, Rhodes College, Millington, the University of Memphis and many more locations. Special Olympics Greater Memphis Director Lisa Taylor said she’d love even more facilities, particularly community centers and churches across Memphis, to provide even greater access to more individuals.
Donated facilities and financial gifts are vital to Special Olympics Greater Memphis because all activities are free of charge to the participant. That means everything from basketball uniforms to running shoes for participants in Road Warriors who are training for a 5K are provided at no cost. If a participant is on a team that travels, those expenses are covered, too.
“It doesn’t matter the economic level,” Taylor said. “Everyone is treated the exact same.”
All of the programs are run by volunteers. Taylor is the only full-time staff member. Volunteers are always needed. They must pass background checks and then sign up with whatever program is most appealing. Those volunteers are then placed with others with more experience and provided training.
While Special Olympics traditionally focuses on sports participation, Special Olympics Greater Memphis takes it a step further with volunteer opportunities for the participants such as cleaning parks and feeding the homeless. They also take classes to learn diversity and manners.
“We try to do a lot of things that aren’t just sports,” Taylor said. “Our program is totally different than most. Donations are important. Those gifts allow us to keep adding programs and serve more individuals. And we want to be involved in the community. If someone wants us to clean a park we’d love them to call us. I want our kids to give back to the community.”
For more information, including how to donate, volunteer or participate as an athlete, go to specialolympicsmem.org.
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