Caryl Andre: How the magic of Special Olympics builds community here
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One of the truly magical events in the Wenatchee Valley each year is the annual Special Olympics Winter Games, which brings 1,500 athletes, plus hundreds of coaches and volunteers for three days of competition, camaraderie and fellowship. The 27th annual winter spectacle begins Friday night at the Town Toyota Center with the opening ceremonies, followed by competitions and a huge dance on Saturday night.
There is a sense of magic about Special Olympics that brings out the best in the athletes, coaches, volunteers, judges and the community at large. It is the celebration of community as we come together to celebrate not just the achievements of the athletes but the joyous spirit exhibited by these individuals with developmental delays. They reflect the best part of our humanity.
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A Yakima Valley native, Andre graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in recreation and an emphasis on developmental disabilities, before taking a parks job in Bothell. When Andre was hired as Wenatchee’s recreation coordinator in 1990, city had very little going in terms of programming at that time. The Special Olympics program was very weak.
Year by year, Andre starting building a recreation program to give youngsters in our valley constructive opportunities to learn sports, attend camps and the like. She also began building the foundation of a Special Olympics program that now has more than 300 local individuals training and competing year-round in more than a dozen sports.
Years ago, people with intellectual challenges were warehoused in institutions and disconnected from community. But today, these individuals are in our community living and working as fellow community members.
Special Olympics gives these individuals opportunities to try, fail and succeed. It gives them a sense of purpose, pride and accomplishment. They get physical exercise, regular social interaction with adults and other athletes, and the opportunity to compete and win. They also learn that winning isn’t guaranteed.
But Andre pointed out that what the get from the program is miniscule compared to what these individuals teach us about life — about what is truly important in life. You will not see these athletes calling attention to themselves or denigrating their opponents. You’ll see great competitive fire in many athletes and moments of frustration, but what you will see come shining through is a pure sense of joy. You’ll see them rooting for each other, helping each other and being gracious in defeat. “When you hang around these athletes, there is a sense of joy that is priceless,” Andre said.
The city’s recreation department plays a critical coordinating role for Special Olympics coaches and athletes. They recruit coaches and provide support to help them give the athletes a quality experience. Andre and her colleagues also provide a variety of other programs that give kids throughout the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with caring adults, interact with their friends, and learn new skills.
Some may say that parks and recreation programs are a waste of municipal resources, but I am a firm believer that the city’s recreation program reflects a community commitment to helping develop the next generation. As Andre points out, it costs $50,000 or so a year to incarcerate a youngster. For half that amount, the Wenatchee Parks and Recreation Department can run an entire summer program.
We are incredibly blessed to have Andre and her colleagues providing meaningful mentorship and activities for youngsters in our valley.