Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - April 17, 2009

Truly special

Developmentally disabled have their day on the court

by Jeb Bing

There's a reason they call it the Special Olympics. Everyone and everything about the program are special, from the hundreds of children and adults with developmental disabilities who participate to the even more hundreds of coaches, referees and volunteers who make it happen to the dedicated staff that manages the Special Olympics of Northern California that serve Pleasanton and surrounding communities.

Late last month, 500 Special Olympics athletes competed in a two-day regional basketball competition at Pleasanton Middle School and Amador Valley High School. Under the direction of Laura Cohen, sports manager of the region's Special Olympics program, the organization fielded 47 teams with 65 "individual skills" participants from Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Solano, Fresno, Siskiyou and San Joaquin counties. The Amador Valley Boosters Club brought more than 200 volunteers from their school, alone, and there were more from throughout the Tri-Valley who helped individual participants play the game as part of a regional end-of-season tournament.

"On one court, you would think it was your typical high school basketball squad, while on another, the players worked hard at dribbling the ball down the court and trying to make a basket," Cohen said. "No matter what their disability, the coaches and referees look at what their abilities are and we work very hard to let them use those skills."

Tomorrow, from noon to 8 p.m., local law enforcement officers will trade in their handcuffs and badges for serving aprons and gourmet burgers at the Red Robin restaurant at 4503 Rosewood Drive near Wal-Mart for a Tip-A-Cop fundraiser for the Special Olympics. The effort is part of a an annual Law Enforcement Torch Run involving 85,000 law enforcement officers worldwide to help the organization, with the local campaign aimed at raising more than $60,000 for the regional group, Cohen said.

Started in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is now a global program of year-round sports training and athletic competition for more than 1 million children and adults with developmental disabilities. These range from mental handicaps to autism to Down syndrome to adults who have suffered brain injuries or damaging diseases.

The goal is to give all persons with these disabilities a chance to become useful and productive, and accepted and respected in their communities, Cohen said. This is done through year-round sports training and competition that lets athletes develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, and experience joy and participation with family and other athletes.

Cohen said basketball is one of the favorite sports, with many Olympics participants also fans of teams they follow on television sports broadcasts. It's also relatively simple to teach at the start, such as dribbling, and allows individual players to develop their skills gradually into actual competitive play with other similar teams.

"We have about 25 basketball sites where we hold practice during the week, all the way from Brentwood to Union City," Cohen said. "It's a sport where you can focus and get involved."

This month, with the basketball season ending, Olympics participants are turning to outdoor sports such as track, swimming and softball. Softball is more difficult for some of the players because it's more complicated, requiring throwing, batting and running skills that many can't master. Swimming is popular, but it also requires more skilled volunteer swimming instructors and supervisors because of the risks of the sport.

Although the regional program is open to all with developmental disabilities, there are limitations. Children must be 8 years old to compete in Special Olympics programs, although 5-year-olds can enroll for training. Practice sessions are held at least once a week and participants must find their own transportation to the sites, which vary depending on the sport. This year, the organization secured 25 basketball courts for use during the 10-week-ong season. Some participants live in group homes that offer transportation; others take public transportation; some are able to drive to practices on their own.

Ken Mano of the Amador Valley High Athletic Boosters and a Special Olympics coordinator, said his club hosted 47 basketball teams and 60 additional athletes who competed in the "skills" competition last month.

"The original intent of getting involved with Special Olympics was to provide a way for our student athletes to give back to the community," Mano said.

"This is our sixth consecutive year hosting these games and it is through the cooperation of Amador Valley High School and the school district that the Boosters were able to provide the facilities and volunteers to host these tournaments," he added. "The basketball tournaments used over 200 volunteers in various capacities from volunteer check-in to serving lunch, scorekeeping, refereeing and helping with a skills competition and handing out awards."

In addition to Amador Valley athletes, AV Leadership, AVID, Foothill High School Honors Society, the National Charity League, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also provide additional volunteers.

Mano said the Amador Valley Boosters will host track meets and volleyball tournaments for Special Olympics participants on Saturday, May 30 at Amador Valley High School.

Cohen said that although the Special Olympics calls its participants developmentally disabled, it's really the individual's "ability" that matters.

"There's not a big focus on what the individual disabilities are," Cohen explained. "It's more about what their abilities are and what they can do in the program. When you look at abilities, there are a lot more than what people might think."

"We have a very special coaching community," she added. "We're all volunteers. We come out and look at our athletes for what they can do."

Cohen, 25, took the job of managing the Special Olympics for the Northern California organization when she graduated from Chicago State University in 2006 with degrees in women's studies and child development. A lifelong athlete, she also contributed her time to organizations that helped those with disabilities.

"It's pretty amazing when you go out there and see a community like Pleasanton interacting like it does," she said. "These kids go back to school the next day and talk it up and their work becomes even more important. They gain a new perspective on the people around them, including those with disabilities. They realize that we're not all 3.5 grade point jocks."

"It's important to recognize who is in your community, that everyone has something to offer," she added. "They might look totally different from what you're used to seeing, but they are still members of your community and it's important to acknowledge that."

Cohen urged everyone to participate in the Special Olympics event when it comes back to Pleasanton.

"It's a lot of fun and I guarantee you'll walk away with a smile on your face," she said.

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