HANCOCK COUNTY — When the athletes from Hancock County Special Olympics load up on their bus after a competition, the energy onboard is inspiring, said Teresa Cook, a longtime volunteer with the organization.
Cook wants more people, both volunteers and athletes, to experience that energy.
Special Olympics Hancock County, a chapter of the national nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for athletic competition to dozens of local athletes with intellectual disabilities, is seeking to expand its county footprint.
The local organization, driven entirely by a network of about 50 volunteers, needs about a dozen more people to help with coaching, outreach and administrative duties of the chapter, Cook said. The amount of time expected from volunteers varies depending on the position, she added.
“Once you get involved with it, it’s really incredible to see the difference you’re making for the athletes,” said Cook, who’s served as head coordinator for the organization for the past six years. “We just need more people to identify with the cause.”
Special Olympics programming dates back to the 1950s, coming to Hancock County more than 30 years ago, and is today the largest sports organization in the world for people with intellectual disabilities. Children as young as 2 can participate, and no one is too old to be involved. Sporting events provided by the organization include track and field, softball, swimming, golf, bowling and basketball.
Locally, the organization operates on about $18,000 annually, which is raised through donations and grant.
There are more than 4.5 million athletes across 170 countries and thousands of volunteers who help keep the organization operating. In Indiana, nearly 11,000 athletes participate each year.
The Hancock County Chapter has about 90 participants and travels the state and nation each year to compete in sporting competitions.
After people become acquainted with the organization and begin to develop relationships with athletes, they’re usually hooked, said Beth Schweigel, central Indiana manager for the Special Olympics Indiana.
“It’s fulfilling on so many levels, emotional and personal,” Schweigel said. “When you begin interacting with individuals with special needs, they can touch your heart in a way that’s unlike anything else. It can really change your outlook.”
And local-level Special Olympics organizations, such as Hancock County’s, wouldn’t exist without the volunteers, she added.
“Without them, we really couldn’t make it happen; we rely on them for so much,” Schweigel said.
Quite often, the individuals who sign up to get involved with Special Olympics are relatives or friends with someone with special needs, said Kathy Vosmek, who’s been a member of the Hancock County organization’s board for seven years.
“When you don’t grow up with people with special needs, some people don’t know how to interact,” Vosmek said. “But once people get over that hesitation and begin to interact with people who are different, the more you grow.”
Though it can be tough to get on the radar of individuals without direct ties to Special Olympics, their input is valued, too, Schwiegel said.
“They see it from a different perspective than from those who have a family member or loved one involved,” Schwiegel said. “Everyone has a different talent. Some are really good at sports, some are great with fundraising, others have great organizational skills. And bringing those together helps achieve a balance.”
Jaimi Smith, a board member of the county organization, said she got involved through her work with a local health care provider, which had established a partnership with Special Olympics to teach athletes about the importance of hygiene.
But since she got involved with the organization about a year ago, she’s discovered what it can offer.
“I learn so much from the athletes,” Smith said. “After seeing them succeed, even if it’s just knocking over a few bowling pins, it helps you develop and appreciation for your own life and for others.”
To learn more about opportunities to volunteer with Hancock County Special Olympics, email Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hancock County Special Olympics is seeking volunteers for leadership, coaching and outreach positions. To get involved, email Teresa Cook at email@example.com.