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Special Olympics bring smiles and friendship to communities | News, sports, jobs

For over 50 years, the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania has offered people with special needs the opportunity to make friends, learn important life skills, and most importantly, enjoy physical activity and exercise with others.

“The Special Olympics’ mission is to offer year-round sports training and competitions for people with special needs from the age of eight.” said Lester Loner, training coordinator for Lycoming County Special Olympics. “Right now I think we have 12 different sports and we have about 125 athletes in Lycoming County.”

“We have local competitions and then athletes from local competitions are selected to go to regional competitions and then they can advance to state competitions.” said loner. “In Lycoming County, hopefully four people will go to Florida in June 2022, which is being held at Disney. It is a seven-day competition for athletes across the United States so it is a great honor to be selected. “

In addition to helping coordinate their athletes’ sporting activities, the Lycoming County’s Special Olympics make a point of developing the athletes in their personal lives as well.

“We’re a sports organization, but we help with a lot of other things. In the past we have tried to help some people find work. “ Loner said. “Maybe some people who are moving away from their parents and coming out on their own wanted to help them rent apartments and that sort of thing. So we are a sports organization, but we also offer the individual many opportunities. “

These opportunities have had a huge impact on the lives of countless athletes, including Cathy Keenan, who, when asked what she liked best about the Special Olympics, said: “… I like to have friends and compete against athletes who match my abilities.”

Much like other outreach organizations in the area, Lycoming County’s Special Olympics have been forced to grapple with the pandemic and work.

“We are slowly making our way back” said loner. “… In the beginning it was very difficult because we weren’t allowed to do personal training, we couldn’t meet the athletes, we couldn’t work with them individually. So we did a virtual training. The state offered many opportunities, such as the Stride Challenge, in which they work with the athletes and record their distances over a certain period of time. “

But, as Loner pointed out, switching to virtual events during the pandemic wasn’t an ideal solution for all athletes.

“We have had a lot of athletes who did not feel comfortable participating in this aspect.” he said. “Many of them live at home or live in shared apartments and haven’t really had the opportunity to do so. As a result, not only our program but other programs have struggled to keep our athletes engaged. And then of course the population we serve is not always the healthiest. So it influenced them. “

In addition to affecting the organization’s ability to host sporting events, the pandemic, as Loner points out, has impacted the number of fundraisers the group has held in the past two years.

“The other fundraising drives we are running, such as the Hiawatha Awards and other public fundraising drives, were not possible due to COVID.” he said.

Another fundraiser, Loner says, due to the pandemic, the organization missed the annual Frostbite 5-Mile Run and 5K Walk, which will be held in DuBoistown on December 12th at 1pm this year

“We leave there at the fire station in DuBoistown and work our way out through the Mosquito Valley … to the water filter system and we turn around, come back and exit the Valley Inn. It’s a 5 mile run and then there’s a 5K walk. So there are two events that take place at the same time. “

This year, participants can take part in the race either on the official race day or virtually at any time. Those who register for the race in person or virtually will receive a long-sleeved t-shirt, and those who register to participate on race day will automatically be eligible for door prizes which will be given at the end of the event.

As pandemic restrictions continue to ease across the country, Loner is excited to see the in-person events for the athletes return.

“Although the Special Olympics are a sports organization, many of the participants do so out of camaraderie with the other athletes and they miss that.” Loner said. “We are glad that we can devote ourselves to our personal affairs again.”

Loner also says that while restrictions are beginning to wear off, event coordinators are taking all necessary precautions to ensure their athletes and volunteers stay safe.

“We are taking all the precautions we can” he said. “We are necessary with social distance, we wear a mask when we are required … the state is doing a good job trying to protect everyone so that we can continue to operate.”

In addition to returning to personal activities, local Special Olympics athletes were recently featured on a River Valley Transit Bus, showcasing their accomplishments and helping to raise public awareness of their cause.

And there is no doubt that athletes are thrilled to get back on the field and get going again, and many are noticing how much they enjoy the friendships and camaraderie they have found as members of their respective Special Olympics teams .

“My favorite sports are soccer, basketball and bowling. I enjoy being on a team, being with other athletes and having fun. “ said athlete Neil Schweikart.

That sentiment was shared by his local fellow athlete Ryan Kenney, who said his favorite sport is soccer and “I like to go to competitions, win medals, team up with my friends and encourage them to do their best.”

Those who wish to volunteer or are interested in the activities of the Lycoming County Special Olympics can get in touch with the organizers in a number of ways, including on Facebook or through the Lycoming County Special Olympics website.

Loner can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 570-433-1765.

“We are always looking for volunteers, just like any other service organization” he said. “Even more so, with COVID.”

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