By Leslie Merchant
It’s hard not to smile when the younger siblings of athletes run out onto the field in an attempt to join the game. Most families are able to reel in their wee Olympic hopefuls with promises of playtime in their own age-appropriate leagues. For parents of children with intellectual disabilities, it’s a whole different game – and that’s because there really is no game. Special Olympics Area Director Mark Barker is going to change the local landscape and give parents and special children an opportunity to smile too.
“Special Olympics athletes can start at eight years old, anything before that there is nothing going on,” explains Barker. “I am bringing a program to Thurston County called ‘Young Athletes Program‘ and it’s intended for 2.5 – 7-year olds. I am trying to get (this age group) individuals with intellectual disabilities to be part of this, whether they’re ambulatory or not ambulatory. It’s going to be sensory, it’s going to be cardio, it’s going to be really cool!”
Parents approach Barker frequently and ask him what they can do with their young child. He says it’s time to recognize the younger athletes and get them involved early instead of waiting until they are eight-years-old. As a parent of a child with an intellectual disability, Barker is extremely understanding of the frustrations that families often encounter when looking for activities for their children.
“We would like to be a pioneer in Washington State for this (program). I have several families just begging me to get this thing started but I don’t have enough participants yet. There are so many families out there that should be part of the program for Special Olympics, I need to get the word out.”
Classes run from 30-60 minutes in order to accommodate for a younger child’s short attention span. Currently Barker is scouting out potential locations to host the program. Sites will ideally be wheelchair accessible and on a bus route. Since the program itself is free to participating families, he is hoping to save costs by locating a donated space. With a local population of about 250 special needs athletes, Barker is hoping that someone or some organization in the community will open their arms to the Young Athletes Program.
Getting athletes to the game is just one aspect of Barker’s game plan. The other initiative he is launching is called “STRIVE Program,” where during an eight week process, select athletes will be taught how to eat healthy, get their weight down, exercise and start taking care of themselves. Barker is confident that this approach will inspire a lifelong commitment not only to the game but to a healthy lifestyle.
The goal is to get all athletes not only involved in a sport but to start them on a lifelong goal of healthy living. Barker is bringing in local specialists during the sporting event to give families the opportunity to meet with health care professionals. The program called “Healthy Athletes” offers everything from eye, hearing, dental, and nutrition exams at sporting events and all are free. The experts can help direct families to organizations that will help them.
Barker explains, “A large percentage of these families are just getting by. They are good people but they are not going to go to the doctor at all. We are not trying to be just sports, but we want to be healthy athletes. We want our two and a half to seven year old athletes out there to get involved.” Exposure and convenience for the families will be an added bonus of participating in a Special Olympics Program.
With a team of about 20 volunteers year round, Barker hopes to offer as many opportunities to local area athletes as possible. About five of Barker’s older athletes are high functioning and are themselves volunteers for their peers. Barker hopes they will be assistant coaches and even learn some fundraising skills. It’s a way for some of the more able athletes to become part of the circle of giving. Other upcoming opportunities include a fundraiser at Red Robin on October 24 and a first ever Special Olympics Cheer Camp on November 14.
The Young Athletes Program was started by Special Olympics of New Jersey. It is an active fun program that introduces the younger set to the world of Special Olympics and sports. Barker has a goal to launch the first ever Washington State Young Athletes Program mid-October. With several families itching for it to get started, Barker is hoping to confirm a few more participants and secure a location as soon as possible.