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Susan Fotovich McCabe captures how one organization feels the embrace of an entire community in her article on our local Special Olympics team - the Blue Valley Blue Streaks. The article appears in the latest editions of Leawood Lifestyle and Johnson County Lifestyle.
During each Tuesday evening in September, dozens of athletes gathered for a weekly soccer practice. The nights usually began with a little catching up among the athletes, a series of high-five's, and an abundance of enthusiasm. It's a pattern that's repeated throughout the seasons of soccer, basketball, track and field and a host of other sports for the Blue Valley Blue Streaks - the official team of Blue Valley Special Olympics.
Next month, the team will prepare for its biggest challenge - the 24th annual Bowl-A-Thon, the team's largest fundraiser, held Saturday, Nov. 3rd from 1-2:30 p.m. and 3:30-5 p.m. at AMF College Lanes, 10201 College Blvd. The team's goal is to raise the financial base it needs to support 13 sports, competition fees, uniforms and equipment to accommodate its growing roster of athletes.
When the program begain in 1988, Blue Valley Special Olympics consisted of only one sport - basketball - and 10 athletes. Today, it has 175 athletes. Additionally, Blue Valley Special Olympics, which operates from the Blue Valley Recreation offices, has expanded beyond sports to include the Special Populations program, a variety of classes, dances, field trips and other fun, social activities for athletes ages 8 and older. Both programs are representative of Blue Valley Recreation's mission statement, "Enriching Lives, Strengthening a Spirit of Community."
"A large percentage of individuals with special needs do not have many extracurricular activities outside of school and work," says Blue Valley Special Olympics Founder and Coordinator Nan Kanter. "In addition to providing physical activities and building self esteem, Special Olympics provides a wonderful social outlet for participants to interact and make lasting friendships. The athletes look forward to their weekly practices to enhance these friendships. Without such a program, many of these individuals would not have these opportunities to look forward each week."
For 22-year-old Laura Abrams of Overland Park, without Blue Valley Special Olympics, Laura says she would "be bored." Like most first-time Special Olympic athletes, Laura joined the program at age 8. It's where she met her friend Caroline, who remains her best friend today. A Blue Valley Northwest High School graduate, Laura is now employed in a daytime work program through Johnson County Development Supports (JCDS). The organization provides adults and youth with special needs the home and job support they need to be independent in the community. Outside of work, Laura devotes most of her free time to Blue Valley Special Olympics and Special Populations. Her mother, Maria, says her participation was a blessing for the entire family all those years ago.
"Our family had been in Overland Park for two years when Laura joined Blue Valley Special Olympics. During that two years, we didn't know any other families who had children with special needs," Maria says. "When Laura started with the program, it opened up a whole new world for us and for Laura. She just blossomed."
For Leawood's Craig Chase, 25, whose disabilities limit his opportunities for employment, Blue Valley Special Olympics has become a critical component of his social life. At the age of 2, Craig suffered a massive stroke, leaving him with cognitive delays, physical and visual impairments. While his parents, Betse Gage and Bill Chase work to fill his day with volunteer and therapeutic activities, he counts on Blue Valley Special Olympics and Special Populations for his enjoyment. Betse says Craig's athletic strengths are his powerful volleyball serves and the softball throw component of track and field. But his favorite sport is bowling, When he's not engaged in sports, he's enjoying the Special Populations outings with his best friends, Michael Kanter, Nan's son.
"Craig started Blue Valley Special Olympics when he was 6 and it filled a void in his life," Betse says. "It has been a constant in his life for physical activity and socialization. We all would be very sad without it."
Younger athlete, 14-year-old Pauline Hernandez of Leawood is an 8th grader at Prairie Star Middle School and active in Blue Valley Special Olympics. Born premature and weighing just one-and-a-half pounds, Paulina began her early life in a Polish orphanage. Her parents, Jim and Teddie Hernandez, welcomed her to their family as she faced cognitive delays, functional blindness and epilepsy. Today, Paulina is at nearly every Special Olympics event and her mom calls her "a heck of a goalie."
"I am really good at soccer! I score goals, and one time I even scored two for the other team!" Paulina says. "I like being a goalie - they can't score when I am goalie."
While Blue Valley Special Olympics provides Paulina with a comfortable group of friends, Teddi says it has broadened the family's social lives as well.
"We have met the most amazing families through Special Olympics," Teddi says. "When I go to the events, I feel like I can just relax. Everyone cheers each others' kids on and there's no stressful competition. It's a positive environment."
Keeping Blue Valley Special Olympics operational all these years does take funding, but it also takes the embrace of an entire community, from scouting and student council groups to civic organizations and local businesses. Nan says she often receives offers of help from fellow Blue Valley students of all ages who want to volunteer alongside the athletes.
"Over the past 24 years as a Special Olympics coordinator, I have seen much support from the community," Nan says. "Each year I have had many community members support us through volunteering, as well as through financial commitments. Many of those community members have continued to volunteer over the years, giving us countless hours to help our athletes."
However, ask any parent involved in Blue Valley Special Olympics about what keeps this well-oiled machine going and the consensus is always "Nan!" According to parents and athletes, Nan doesn't lead from behind a desk. She' in the field - literally - running the program, helping the many coaches who volunteer their time, and enjoying the many social activities alongside the athletes.
"Nan's patience and diligence amazes me," Maria says. "She eats, sleeps and breathes Blue Valley Special Olympics."
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Recreation Complex Office (Sports)
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6545 W. 151st Street
"Enriching Lives, Strengthening a Spirit of Community"
"We will champion community and personal growth through dynamic lifelong recreation experiences."