"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
By Belinda Garza Gaddis
My husband is an athlete – running, archery, basketball – you name it, he excels in it and takes joy in it. And when Nathan was born in 1999, I remember how Chris told me, “Our son is going to be a Special Olympian.”
At the time, Special Olympics programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities began at age 8 (now, programs are offered for younger groups), so we waited eagerly for Nathan’s chance to participate as he began school in Spring ISD – through PPCD, kindergarten, first grade, second grade. Throughout those years, his school sent home applications for Boy Scouts, soccer, and swimming, but what our hearts were set on most was Special Olympics. We tried soccer and other sports but found that he wasn't ready for typical sports. He would kick the soccer ball with his family but never with his team. He would fold his arms and look at the basketball floor. Typical behavior for those with Ds, but we were still embarrassed. Since Special Olympics trains the coaches to expect the unexpected, I knew he would feel at home with them – and better yet – we would not feel the stigma of having a child whose behavior is disrupting play.
Finally, the big day came – Nathan turned 8 – and I started checking his backpack each day for the Special Olympics flyer. Day after day, nothing. Maybe, I thought, it was because his birthday was in March; maybe it would come that fall. September came and went. Nothing. Meanwhile, our life continued with medical and therapy appointments, ARDs and a hospitalization.
Finally I started making phone calls, and learned the devastating truth: Our school district had not funded a Special Olympics program at Nathan’s elementary school. It didn’t matter that his school had more children with intellectual disabilities than some of the other elementary schools, and that children with Down syndrome have a propensity toward hyperthyroidism and becoming overweight. I learned that your child has to be on track to attend a high school that offers Special Olympics in order for it to be offered at the elementary or middle school level, and Nathan’s future high school, Westfield], has no such program either. I even offered to take my child myself to practices at the neighboring elementary but that school offered its Special Olympics practice during the school day.
We parents of children with Down syndrome have come to realize that very often in our children’s lives, we must take matters into our own hands to provide the opportunities that our children need and deserve. I began to look around me and started listening to others. And I realized there were a lot of children and adults with Down syndrome in the same situation – those, like Nathan, whose schools didn’t offer a Special Olympics program; those who are being homeschooled; and young adults who had aged out of school. They don't want to be sitting in front of the TV. Our need was clear – we needed a sponsor for the team, a coach, volunteers and supportive parents.
Once the Board Members realized that our members needed this program, they agreed to sponsor the team. Then Renee Klovenski Program Director with the Special Olympics spoke at one of the monthly meetings about the coach and volunteer training they offer. We envisioned a dad or a granddad volunteering.
To our delight, one of our volunteers at the time, Mariann Gonzalez, a young high school student, was the first one to raise her hand and said "I'll do it!" She and her friends were our supporters and cheerleaders that first year. The Panther Pack was formed. Mariann has since graduated from college. Currently, we have two dads, Harold Hatcher and Chris Gaddis, and two moms, Carla Upchurch and GiGi O’Campo, who’ve step up to the plate and become coaches.
The Panther Pack has two chapters, N.W. and Spring. At this point, our team only bowls and it consists of bowlers from ages 8 to 45. The N.W. chapter bowls year around and the Spring chapter bowls from the fall to February. The regional tournament is in early December and the state tournament is in early February.
I envision each of our community groups having its own team soon. Are you interested in having a team near you? The Special Olympics offers the training for coaches and volunteers. Maybe you know someone who can spare a couple of hours per week who will volunteer.
Nathan has made friends for life – he even prays for each of them at dinner time! Others look forward to spending some time with their friends, high fiving each other and yelling out "Panther Pack!" Social skills are learned while having fun – waiting your turn, no pushing, etc. – and athletic skills too.
The practice is once a week for one hour. A couch will need to invest about two hours a week – that's it. And it's worth it!
If you are interested in joining the team, coaching or volunteering, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eligibility: You must be a member of DSAH and over the age of 8 with Down syndrome or have an intellectual disability or closely related disability. In order to compete, you must complete an Athlete Enrollment/Medical Release Form and submit it to our local Special Olympics director with a copy to me.