Special Olympics Florida provides fun and inclusion in the community

Special Olympics Florida is a year-round sports training and competition program that serves children and adults 8 years of age and older with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Photo Submitted by Kendall Harris.

For those living with disabilities, it can be easy to be looked down upon and written off as an “outcast” or “different”. But, a statewide program called Special Olympics Florida, has set out to change that stereotype, and has lead the charge in helping those with a disability integrate into society through sports training and competition.

Special Olympics Florida is a year-round sports training and competition program that serves children and adults 8 years of age and older with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Leon County division currently offers 16 sports and serves a total of 636 athletes throughout the county.

Last week, two basketball teams practiced in the Hansel E. Tookes Recreation Center at Florida A&M University. The Unified Seminoles team could be seen playing a half-court game where they showed teamwork and dedication to the sport.  Anna Jordan, mother of Seminoles player Daniel Jordan, gave a little insight as to exactly what the program is and how it has been beneficial for her son.

“The Special Olympics provides not only an athletic workout, but the athletes learn how to follow the rules, they learn self-discipline and good sportsmanship, but the biggest component of what they learn is socialization,” Jordan said. “Through the state’s Special Olympics headquarters, Daniel has taken public speaking, he’s made presentations, and he’s also spoken in front of the Governor and his Cabinet.”

The Seminoles could be seen giving each other signals of where to pass the ball, as well as, shouting out commands to each other as they played a well-paced game with their coach, Terra Catanach. And, as a traditional sports team, all skills learned on the court or on the field are skills the athletes can and will use in everyday life.

The Special Olympics also provides an avenue for people with disabilities to make and keep friends. This is beneficial because people with disabilities sometimes distance themselves due to uncomfortable feelings or being unsure of how to communicate with others. The Special Olympics helps break those barriers.

Kendrick McClary who plays on The Ballers team, one of the highest skilled teams in the Special Olympics, shared a little about his experience.

“Meeting new people has been the most beneficial for me, as well as, being able to play against and help others who also have a disability,” McClary said.

In addition to being a playground for new friendships, Special Olympics Florida is a completely free program. The program is made possible through the generosity of the community, businesses, corporations, and civic organizations, even the coaches are volunteers.

Bridget Hawk, county director for the program, oversees everything that happens from the time seasons begin, to the end of the season.

“We participate in a 10 to 14-week practice period with one county game, which serves as our local level competition, then one area game which is multiple counties, and then those who win in those games advance to state games in the Central Florida area,”’ Hawk said. “These sports are truly competitive events, and everyone must pull their weight in order to play the sport and win the game.”

Richard Jones who serves as coach for The Ballers has been on both sides of the game, once as a player and now a coach, for more than two years. His goal for his players, both men and women, is to have fun, win or lose. The team is undefeated this season.

“I used to play Special Olympics ball myself, and now I really love and enjoy coaching,” Jones said. “I love this team, and I’m glad that I have been able to stick with them over the past couple of years, because I’m able to help ensure that they stay together.”

The Special Olympics accepts monetary donations, as well as, items like water, food, transportation, office supplies, and equipment or shoes for the athletes. For more inquiry on how and where to donate visit their website at www.specialolympics.com.