The Bethlehem Special Olympics program combines camaraderie, sportsmanship and team building to provide competitive sports experiences for aspiring athletes with intellectual disabilities.
The Bethlehem branch, in its 41st year of operation, offers a variety of sports from basketball and soccer to roller skating and powerlifting. Although the Pennsylvania State Games for the Special Olympics will take place in June, the organization hosts weekly games and practices throughout the year.
Saral Patel, ’19, joined as a volunteer for the program this semester as an assistant soccer coach. Sports and community service have always been a large part of Patel’s life, and with the Special Olympics, he found a way to satisfy both of these interests.
“The reason I (joined) is because I actually did something like this in high school where we played baseball and basketball with mentally handicapped children,” Patel said. “It’s something that really brings you back to earth, and it really humbles me.”
Volunteer coordinator Dana Lindsey said volunteers are able to learn important communication skills by working with the athletes in the program. She said the organization can be a rewarding opportunity for students looking to coach their favorite sports and get involved in the Bethlehem community.
Caroline Kaufman, ’18, has been a volunteer for two semesters and plans to continue her involvement. Through the program, she has formed close relationships with the players and helps them accomplish their goals while teaching and learning along the way.
“It’s a really rewarding feeling to be able to help someone, coach them and guide them on achieving their goals,” Kaufman said.
Both Patel and Kaufman were encouraged to join from various online advertisements for community involvement in Bethlehem.
Lindsey, who also acts as an assistant coach, works with the organization to send out advertisements for volunteers and players, and she performs various background checks and online training courses for potential volunteers. Lindsey initially got involved with the Special Olympics as a swim coach volunteer in 2013 and was offered the volunteer coordinator position in 2014.
Practices take place once a week. Coaches and assistants run through drills with the players, helping them improve their athletic skills and facilitating team bonding. In addition, the teams compete about once a week and allow the players to showcase their talents and abilities they develop in practice.
Each team consists of roughly 20 players and five coaches, including assistant coaches. Lindsey said the athletes who compete in events range in age from 8 to 40, while children ages 2 through 7 are encouraged to practice with teams and improve their athletic abilities.
“The athletes really make volunteers feel welcome and really like working with them,” Lindsey said. “It’s learning how to be part of team and how to work together.”
While Lehigh clubs and organizations are not currently collaborating with the Bethlehem branch, a number of student volunteers from Lehigh, like Patel and Kaufman, still participate in the program. Lindsey said volunteer roles include coaching, driving to competitions, assisting at events and working with the public relations team.
“It’s a really fun and enjoyable outlet from everyday life and allows these people from the community to get together and work on team building,” Kaufman said. “It’s nice to see them enjoying themselves playing sports, which is an awesome way to bring people together.”
Patel said the volunteers instantly become part of the team by acting as guides for the athletes and building lasting bonds that go beyond the arena.
“They look up to us a lot, we’re sort of mentors for them,” Patel said. “It’s a really special relationship, and it’s hard to mimic that.”
He said when a player is significantly younger than a volunteer, it’s like a big brother or big sister relationship.
The 49th annual Pennsylvania State Games for the Special Olympics — where athletes will compete for three days to exhibit what they’ve been practicing for the past year — will take place at Penn State in June. Patel and Kaufman are unsure whether they’ll be able to make it this year, but they are hopeful.
Lindsey said volunteering at the Bethlehem Special Olympics provides people with valuable experiences and memories that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. She said the program stresses inclusion, fitness and community involvement, where anyone can volunteer and participate as they please.
“These children and adults have always been put aside in communities because they’re different, and this program gives them the chance to feel included,” Patel said. “It’s really special being a part of that and helping them feel good about themselves. They look forward to practice all week, and I do too.”