When 19-year-old Elizabeth O’Connell prepares for a 50-yard dash, her typically smiling face becomes serious and determined.
The starter yells “Go!” and Elizabeth begins pumping her arms, propelling herself faster toward the finish line. Her resolve is set, and as she crosses the finish line, her expression is one of sheer joy.
She beams at the crowd, confidently saying, “I did it! I did it!” Especially at that moment, there is no disability she cannot overcome, nothing she cannot do.
Almost 41 million American children play at least one sport, a significant increase over the past 20 years, according to Dr. Steve Carney, Professor of Sports Management at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. Studies have repeatedly shown that team sports help kids develop social competence, create positive self-esteem, and keep children’s bodies and minds healthy and in shape.
Because so many children want to play sports, youth sports have become more inclusive in their design. Organizations such as the Special Olympics and Kiwanis Club of McKinney promote sports opportunities for children with disabilities, giving nearly every child the opportunity to participate.
“Elizabeth loves interacting with her teammates, the volunteers and the coaches,” explains her mom Helen O’Connell. “Everyone is so encouraging of one another, and afterwards, Elizabeth talks about the track meet for weeks on end. The event and the people really touch her heart.”
Special Olympics in McKinney
The Special Olympics, created in 1962, is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with disabilities. The group provides year round sports training and competitions in a variety of Olympic-type activities to more than 3.7 million athletes in more than 170 countries. Its goal is to help its participants develop physical fitness and other character traits.
The organization partners with the McKinney Independent School District, where the Special Education team works to develop programs for students with disabilities that are relevant and adaptable to the student’s needs.
“Our mission is to provide opportunities for children with intellectual disabilities to participate in extracurricular activities, just like every other typical student,” explains McKinney ISD Special Olympics Coordinator Kyle Osborn. “The advantages are numerous: We see physical fitness and social benefits with all of our children, along with fellowship and outreach opportunities between students and into the community.”
McKinney ISD Special Olympics offers three key opportunities for children to participate, including fall bowling, winter basketball, and track and field meets. The events culminate in a McKinney- hosted track meet in April featuring 12 school districts.
“With over 200 special needs kids participating, we’ve seen fantastic growth over the past five years,” says Janice Morriss, McKinney ISD Special Olympics Coordinator. “These programs allow our special needs kids the opportunity to come together, interact with other children, and develop a sense of pride and joy surrounding their achievements. It’s truly priceless.”
Recent economic challenges that led to funding cutbacks throughout the State of Texas have significantly affected the McKinney ISD Special Olympics budget as well. During the 2011-2012 school year, the group operated primarily on donations and held several fundraisers.
“The community and several of our schools stepped up to the plate, helping to further our program’s momentum,” Morriss says. “McClure Elementary and [McKinney] Boyd High School contributed greatly to our cause, helping raise over $4,000.
"In addition, we had several other businesses, families and schools participate, and for each and every person and entity that has helped, we are so grateful.”
Helen O’Connell, Elizabeth’s mother, is also thankful for the funds. She raves about how much Special Olympics has meant to her daughter, who has Down syndrome and has been involved with the program for more than 10 years.
“This program has been vital, creating a mechanism for Elizabeth to not only interact with her peers and develop social skills, but feel empowered to succeed,” O’Connell says, smiling before continuing. “Elizabeth has thoroughly enjoyed the bowling program and track events, and I have so enjoyed watching the older kids from Boyd High School PALS [Peer Assistant Leadership and Services] program mentor the Special Olympics athletes.
“They love on and have empathy for our kids, and truly, it serves the mentors as much as the athletes,” O’Connell says.
Angel League of McKinney
As 2012-2013 president of the Kiwanis Club of McKinney, Brian Hazelwood sees the same community dedication in the Angel League, which provides children with disabilities the opportunity to play T-ball in a team environment.
Hazelwood initially became involved in Kiwanis several years ago because he wanted to give back to the community. When a parent suggested the idea of bringing the Angel League to McKinney, he immediately stepped up.
“I really wanted to be involved in the Angel League,” Hazelwood says. “Our team, the Halos, has children between the ages of 5 and 12 participating on a T-ball team at no charge to the parents and meeting once a week for six weeks. This team environment allows kids to get out there and have some fun while the parents sit back and relax.”
When the Halos started in 2010, 10 children participated on a regular basis. In spring 2011, the number jumped to 15 children, and by spring 2012, more than 25 children were involved.
“We are really pleased by the response,” Hazelwood says. “Not every child attends each time, but on the average, we have over 20 kids. It’s great fun.”
Older youth and high school students from the Key Club, which is the Kiwanis’ high school service organization, shadow the players, helping them hit the ball and run to the bases. Hazelwood notes, “Watching the ‘buddies’ mentor and give back generously to our ball players is truly amazing.”
On the last game night of the season, the group celebrates with a pizza party and awards ceremony, handing out trophies to the participants.
“I have seen this opportunity bring an incredible feeling of belonging to the children [who] participate,” Hazelwood says. “Watching them grow and build skills while fitting in with their peer group – it gives them an avenue they wouldn’t normally have. It’s been awesome.”
About the author: Carolyn Cameron is a local marketer and freelance writer who is a frequent contributor to McKinney Magazine. She enjoys spending time with her three young boys and family, reading and running.