COVINGTON -- For nearly 40 years, Newton County Special Olympics has been helping children with intellectual and physical disabilities gain self-confidence and accomplish goals they never thought possible.
Pam Dew has witnessed many miracles during her 25 years as local program coordinator. One that stands out for her is watching the parents of a special-needs girl sobbing as they watched their daughter skate around a rink with other children.
"They told them their daughter would never walk, and she was skating," Dew said. "If you don't have a special-needs child, you don't know what it means. Every little thing they accomplish is a major accomplishment."
The community has a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of hundreds of local athletes this year during Special Olympics Week. The kickoff to the annual track and field events takes place at 10 a.m. Monday, with a parade around the Square in downtown Covington. That will be followed by opening ceremonies at 11 a.m. at Sharp Gym. Track and field events for elementary school athletes will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday at Eastside High School followed by events for middle and high school and adult athletes from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday.
This year's event has special significance because 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of Special Olympics Georgia. The program in Newton County is slightly younger, but it's grown exponentially since the first track and field events were held in spring of 1975.
Jim Wildman was the director of the Newton County Recreation Commission at that time, and he helped organize the initial games.
"With my background in therapeutic recreation, I wanted to have Special Olympics. I thought that was a segment of the population that had not been served," he said, recalling that about 50 athletes participated that first year. Since then, Special Olympics has grown from being an annual event to a year-round program that serves children as young as 2 up to senior adults. Now, the program boasts 600 participants and 500 volunteers.
"As more students went to the schools, it was taken over by the school system. The recreation department kind of got away from it. It was bigger than they could handle because it was no longer just a single event," said Wildman, who is now an adaptive physical education teacher for middle and high school students.
At first, special-needs students were limited to attending classes at Ficquett Elementary, Sharp Learning Center and Newton High School, but now, almost every school in the county has adaptive physical education and other classes to meet their needs.
"One of the best things that has been done is to have the kids in school with the general population. That gives everyone a chance to see their abilities instead of their disabilities," Dew said.
Participants now have a variety of sports in which to show off their skills, including basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis, soccer, bowling, roller skating, horseback riding, power lifting, golf, track and field, development sports and wheelchair activities.
Participants must have an intellectual disability in order to be a part of Special Olympics. Many have physical disabilities as well. Those who can't play the traditional games can work on other skills, like shooting a basketball at a shorter goal.
"We adapt everything to meet the abilities of the kids," Dew said.
The focus of the sports programs and of the annual games isn't about competition so much as it is about participation.
"It's done in such a way where everybody is a winner. That's one of the slogans of Special Olympics. Regardless of your ability, you're going to get a ribbon for participating and you're going to be encouraged. It's not highly competitive. It's about participating more than anything else," Wildman said.
It's also about teamwork and camaraderie. Even the athletes who are in direct competition often exhibit compassion and helpfulness toward each other. Dew recalls seeing one young woman who was way ahead of her competitor stop skating until the other girl could catch up.
Two years ago, Special Olympics added a pre-K program, serving children ages 2 to 7 and their parents. In addition, the masters program serves adults over age 22 and focuses on leisure and social activities.
Whatever their age or the activity, participants get something out of Special Olympics they sometimes miss out on in every day life.
"So many days of their life everyone is focused on what they can't do. We focus on what they can do," said Lynda Reagan, developmental events chair.
Special Olympics is reliant upon grants and donations to operate -- the cost is about $70 per athlete per year.
To become a volunteer or donate, call Dew at 770-385-6916 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.