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When junior Hannah Dougherty walks onto the basketball courts these days, she isn’t there to play a competitive game. She is there to help Special Olympics athletes improve their skills. Dougherty began volunteering at Special Olympics this year because of the positive things she heard about the program.
Once a week, she coaches basketball and track for Special Olympics.
“I’ve only been able to go to one tournament, but it’s really exciting for me whenever they make baskets,” Dougherty said. “They’re nervous and excited beforehand, and then it’s super exciting when they make a shot because you can tell how accomplished they feel. At one of the first track practices, one of the athletes was kind of nervous and struggling to finish, but once she finished her race, she ran over and talked to me about it, and that just made me feel so happy to know that she was able to finish and then came to me.”
After Dougherty decided to volunteer, she became a coach for track and basketball. Within the competition, there are nine different sports varying from swimming to gymnastics. Special Olympics athlete senior KaShaye Matthews enjoys playing basketball the most, as it is a team sport.
“We work as a team. I play every year, and I do my best to cheer on my teammates,” Matthews said. “It’s fun to play games and get your head in the game and keep going and win awards and do your best out there.”
Whether it be for improvement or competition, recreation specialist for Columbia Sports and Recreation Jody Cook believes a combination of athlete behavior and volunteer commitment are key to the program. The relationship that develops between the athlete and helper is very important to the volunteer experience.
“I think the volunteers get as much out of the program as the athletes do,” Cook said. “It also gives the athletes the ability to show their true power, which their true power is to change perspective, so after people have run their course working within this program, they go out in the world and look at individuals and people differently, so it is my belief that the athletes in the program are changing perspectives one volunteer at a time.”
While the program is helpful to the volunteers, its main purpose is to help the athletes grow physically, emotionally and socially. Whether it be racing in the lanes of a pool or discussing what happened at school, the Olympics help the participants develop important skills.
“Because it just really gives the athletes not only a social and an emotional outlet, there are also expectations. Behavior’s very important in this program; expectations are lined out for the athletes,” Cook said. “You line out the expectations. They all can live up to them and grow, and as they grow all of us around them that are involved with them and taking part in this, we all grow too.”
Dougherty agrees with Cook that the program is beneficial to her because of her opportunity to help the athletes. Whether it be teaching them how to improve their free throws or pushing them to win, Dougherty is willing to help.
“I really love the athletes and just being around them. It’s also nice to understand others and their lives and perspectives,” Dougherty said. She enjoys “seeing how hard they work and the joy that comes to them makes me happy because I know I’m helping them reach their goals. They get so excited, and I think that makes [the coaches] just as excited, too.”
By Abbie Powers and Maddie Davis