America’s Favorite Pastime Is Special Olympics’ Favorite Too

special olympics
Dustin and his softball teammates are coached by his father, Mark Barker.


By Leslie Merchant

salish cliffsAround the world, summertime is made up of many different elements.  Nationwide, the American recipe is pretty consistent: one part sunshine, one part shorts, and one part baseball!  For a select group of South Sound families, softball is the preferred ingredient for a delicious summer.  On Saturday July 27, Special Olympics Thurston County will hold its’ eighth Annual Southwestern Regional Softball Tournament at LBA Park and Stevens Field from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

special olympics softball
Mark Barker (left) coaches his son, Dustin, and the Special Olympics Thurston County softball team.

Mark Barker, Sports Coordinator, is the go-to man for everything Special Olympics Thurston County.   Mark’s son Dustin has been an athlete with the Special Olympics Program since he was 8-years-old.  When long-time Thurston County Coordinator Jim Dickerson retired, Mark stepped into his shoes and hasn’t stopped running.

Besides coordinating events and logistics, Mark can be found coaching, mentoring, fundraising, networking and cheering on the families and players in the program.   Over 250 athletes are currently on the local mailing database and 500-600 athletes will be playing in the tournament.  The winning teams will go on to Everett to compete in state championships later this summer.

Dustin’s Motto   

Dustin is 34-years-old and clearly the apple of his father’s eye. He is an all around athlete and enjoys playing basketball and soccer, but softball is his favorite.  When asked why he likes sports, his motto is, “Work Hard, Get Medals!

Mark credits the Special Olympics program for giving his son opportunities to experience the joy of success and being part of a team.  “Dustin has such a positive attitude.  He is constantly smiles, whether he makes an out or not he is always smiling, and is a really positive influence on the other players,” exclaims Mark.  “Dustin would rather be in no other place than on the sports field with Special Olympics playing.”  Mark says that most of his athletes feel the same way as his son.  Everybody wants to be on the field.  With a 90% turnout, softball in particular has the highest level participation of all the sports Mark coaches.

Opportunity For All

“I think the weather, the camaraderie, the fun of being on the fields (is what draws so many softball participants),” explains Mark.  A walk around the fields is not possible without making a new friend every few steps.  The social and physical opportunities are crucial for many participants who might not otherwise have an outlet for such experiences.  A core group of four volunteer coaches assist Mark in practices and in tournaments, but additional volunteers are always welcome and appreciated.  With about 93 players in the Thurston County program, there are jobs available for anyone who is interested and able to help out.

The Special Olympics Mission

special olympics
Softball is a favorite among Special Olympics participants.

The Special Olympics program gives participants so much more than the chance to play ball.  The Special Olympics Mission says it all: To provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympic athletes and the community.

Age is just a Number 

With several levels of play available to participants, Special Olympics aims to provide an opportunity for every type of player.  The categories include Individual Skills, Competitive Level, and Masters Level sports.  Mark’s youngest athlete is 10-years-old and his most senior is 71-years-old.  Age is just a number in the Special Olympics, and anybody who is willing to try is encouraged to just get out there and play.

Dollars and Cents

So who pays for the players to play?  Mark explains that, “in Special Olympics, funding is very hard.  There’s not a lot of money in the specialized population.”  Fundraising and publicity for Mark’s events are usually done by word of mouth and through Facebook postings.  Any help, whether in the form of volunteers, equipment and/or donations (no matter how small!) is greatly appreciated.

To learn more about Special Olympics, please go to the website.

To learn more about Special Olympics Thurston County, please contact Mark Barker via their Facebook page.


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