Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Games for the greater good

By Madison Winters

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — The first Special Olympics International Summer Games took in 1968. The organization has grown into 226 worldwide locations serving hundreds of thousands of volunteers and participants. The Olympics feature over 30 Olympic-style individual and team sports that provide individualized training and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.
According to its website,, the goal of the organization is to “Encourage people with intellectual disabilities to discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success.”
Rogers is the communication liaison for the national branch of the Special Olympics. Rogers is responsible for connecting regional branches to venues and providing the funding necessary to execute the events.
“At any given time, we're planning 45-50 Special Olympic events,” she said. “Whether it’s a pancake breakfast for local participants and sponsors or the Olympics themselves, there's always something in the works.”
Rogers said that seeing the athletes find happiness and gain a sense of accomplishment it what gets her though the stressful days at work.
Martha Rhodes is the manager of the capital region branch of the Special Olympics.
Rhodes works with athletes, coaches and volunteers from Albany, Columbia, Greene, Hamilton, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie Washington and Warren Counties.
Rhodes first encounter with the Special Olympics was in 1981 during her sophomore year of college.
Rhodes was newly inducted into a sorority and was looking for community service hours.
“My professor’s son was participating in the games that year, he knew that they needed more volunteers so he mentioned it during class,” she said. “I went straight to the community service office and signed up for a variety of tasks.”
Rhodes said that after seeing the smiles on the participant’s faces and noticing how much this organization really does change the lives of so many people, make her change career paths. Rhodes graduated with a degree in business and began her career with the Special Olympics two weeks after graduation.
Rhodes day to day responsibilities center on communication with the national board for the organization. She sends approximately 100 emails each day. She said that each day she receives 10-15 “Thank you” messages. She said that those messages are what motivate her to work harder each day to make each event one that each participant, family member and onlooker will remember for a life time.
Plattsburgh resident, Katie Conelly, has grown up attending the Special Olympics and fund raising event's for the organization. Conelly looks forward to attending the Special Olympics each year because she understand the lasting impact they can have on participants, family member and people who come to show support.
“The morning of the games, I wake up with a smile on my face,” she said. “being a part of something so special to someone that I love means the absolute world to me.”
Conelly's younger brother Noah, born with Downs Syndrome, participates in the Special Olympics each year. The family attends event for the Olympics year round, but nothing compares to the excitement on the day of the Special Olympics.
“I can never sleep during the night before the Olympics,” Noah Conelly said. “When I wake up I eat a big breakfast so I can run really fast.”
Noah said that the two hour drive to the venue where the Olympics is very serious. Noah doesn't speak because he wants everyone to think that he's thinking about his events.
“But I'm just too excited to talk really,” he said.
Noah said that volunteers, like his sister Katie, are what really make the games “so fun.”
Katie said that each person volunteers for a different reason but at the end of the day its all about making the day special for the participants.
“Some of them count down the days until the event for an entire year, you have to make their dreams come true,” she said.
Emily Defrancesco attended Plattsburgh's polar plunge this past Sunday at Plattsburgh City Beach to support a friend’s uncle who has Down Syndrome. Defrancesco said she really enjoys the event because it shows how much people really do support the organization and all that it does.
“Waking up early to jump into freezing water certainly isn't my idea of a perfect morning,” she said. “Watching the wall of people run towards the ice cold water with smiles of their faces, that to me is what makes it all worthwhile.
This year marked Martha Matthews fifth, participating in a polar plunge. Matthews, a Plattsburgh resident, works with children diagnosed with intellectual abilities. Aside from participating in fundraisers and donating to the organization, Matthews volunteers every year at two separate Special Olympics.
Matthews said that the atmosphere of the polar plunge is what really sets it apart from other events.
“There's always music, people are dancing and singing,” she said. “Seeing the group costumes are one of my favorite parts, some people are so creative.”
Matthews said that while running toward the water she enjoys seeing the smile on the faces of the Special Olympics participants. After the plunge, there are always enough hugs and towels to go around she said.
Matthews said that her daughter participated in the plunge last year and forgot to bring a towel, so she took Matthews while she was still in the water.

“I was freezing. I felt a little hand touch my back and I turned around and saw a little boy holding a towel, a hat and some hot chocolate.” Matthews said, “He looked at me and said “Thank you for doing what you did, I really like playing sports and you are helping me do that.”


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