By Kelley Lane-Sivley, Redstone Rocket StaffMarch 5, 2009
Special Olympics and Army Community Service have a recipe they've spent years perfecting. Take special needs athletes, mix in Soldiers and spread them across a sporting event for a generous dollop of fun. This year's batch began with the bowling event Feb. 26.
"This is a tradition at Redstone Arsenal," ACS director Sue Paddock said. "The Soldiers appreciate it because they learn from these athletes. Of course, the athletes love having the Soldiers here. It's a wonderful fit."
Held annually at Plamor Lanes in Huntsville, the event always draws a big crowd. In fact, it has grown to the level that organizers have had to divide it over two days, one for children and another just for the adult competitors on March 3. Top-ranked athletes from both days will go on to the state level later in the year.
Soldiers from Redstone assist in athlete supervision, give game tips, and spend a large part of the time acting as cheering sections. Their presence is a big draw for athletes.
"The students love the Soldiers," Donna Kirkwood, special needs teacher at Riverton Middle School, said. "The Soldiers are encouraging. Everybody likes having someone to cheer for them. These Soldiers provide that."
Their assistance also makes the event easier for teachers and organizers.
"It would be impossible without them. I have students on six different bowling lanes here," Kirkwood said. "There is no way I could supervise students spread across six lanes. With the Soldiers here, I can walk up and down and check on my students. I know they're taken care of. I know they're being supervised."
While a morning of good-natured competition among friends may not seem like a big deal to many, it is an experience many special needs children would not have without Special Olympics.
"It gives our special needs students opportunities that their typical peers take for granted," Kirkwood said. "It gives them the opportunity to compete in an environment where they are encouraged. Typical students take this kind of socialization for granted. They have this kind of social atmosphere with their friends. The combination of competition and social atmosphere is unique to Special Olympics."
It is not a one-way street. While the athletes are having fun, the Soldiers are absorbing lessons about compassion and community that can impact them throughout their lives. Even though it serves as an invaluable training tool, it is also just plain fun.
"It's great to watch the kids enjoy themselves," Sgt. 1st Class Chris Patterson of Bravo Company said. "The Soldiers are just having a great time, too."
The bowling event is smaller than the Track and Field event held each fall, allowing for a more personal experience. A total of 25 Soldiers from HHC 59th and the 832nd Ordnance Battalion participated, along with permanent party members who were able to attend. One Soldier was stationed at each lane, with others gathered around snack tables and communal areas. The close quarters help Soldiers overcome their apprehension and dispels stereotypes, according to Natalie Taylor, ACS exceptional family member coordinator.
"They're always nervous at first," Taylor said. "Most have never been to Special Olympics or worked with special needs children. Before long, though they are right in there with them having fun. It impacts them long term."
Redstone Lanes will play host to a smaller group on March 30 when athletes unable to attend the main event will gather strictly for fun.
"It's just a fun-filled day," Taylor said. "It's like a big field trip."