Volunteers for Special Olympics change lives—including their own
The coaches, kinesiologists, event officials and drivers who make Special Olympics possible benefit, too
BY VALERIE HOWES
Alma Loken and her mother, Melanie Côté Loken are at the Flying Pony, their favourite neighbourhood café. Alma, who’s five, is about to bite into a cookie when her eyes widen. She points at the door and yells, “Patrick!” The man who strides in—all grins and sparkly eyes—matches her enthusiasm with an Irish-lilted “Alma!”
Patrick Kinnucane isn’t a family member or neighbour—he’s Alma’s Special Olympics volunteer coach. Alma has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by developmental and learning delays and a disarmingly chatty and friendly disposition. She has been attending the Special Olympics Active Start program since she was two years old. At her classes in Toronto’s Regent Park, she learns sports fundamentals, such as running, throwing and catching, through sports like basketball and baseball. She also does simple exercises and plays games—like her hands-down favourite, Shark Attack. “You try to steal the ball from another person and then you try to eat them,” Alma explains, while opening and closing her arms like a junior Jaws in a polka-dot dress.
Special Olympics training programs exist at the community, provincial and national levels, and participants can start competing once they turn eight. “You can start training at age two and there’s no cut-off, so Alma could still be a Special Olympics athlete when she’s 88,” says Côté Loken.
Alma has made huge leaps—physically, cognitively and socially—from participating. “When she was two, she had a walker, she wasn’t speaking yet and she was still wearing 12-months-size clothes,” says Côté Loken.
Just three years later, Alma has become a chatterbox—and she can run. “One day someone kicked a ball so fast she couldn’t keep up, so she actually got up and ran to get it,” recalls Côté Loken.
And then there’s her bond with Kinnucane.
“When Alma gets up in the morning on Thursdays, she announces, ‘Today it’s Special Olympics Day—today I’m going to see Patrick!’” says Côté Loken. The duo’s chemistry shines through in the way they laugh and mirror one another’s animated arm gestures, and as they talk about favourite rituals, like when Alma climbs on top of a large equipment bag after class, hitching a joyride as Kinnucane wheels it across the gym.
Alma and the other young Special Olympians who take part in Active Start actually have Côté Loken to thank for the program. When Alma was two, “her neighbourhood friends were registering in music and sports classes,” says Côté Loken. “But all the organizers turned her away. They wanted her to register with the babies. I wasn’t OK with that; I wanted to make sure she was with her peers.”
Then she saw the Special Olympics World Games on TV. Within two months, Côté Loken had partnered with Special Olympics Ontario program manager Josh Budish to relaunch Toronto’s Active Start program for kids aged two to eight, which had been on hiatus. Together, they found a space, recruited volunteers, fundraised for equipment and found other kids to sign up. Côté Loken even trained as a coach that first year, before other coaches stepped in so she could focus on being a parent—and have the time to chat with other parents of special needs kids.
That was as helpful for Côté Loken as Kinnucane’s training was for Alma. “Every week someone comes in with a new challenge: They’re needing to advocate for supports at school; they’ve thrown a birthday party for their kid but nobody’s coming; classmates are making fun of their kid in the playground,” she says. “A lot of tears get shed at Special Olympics between the parents, in conversations in the corner. But at the same time, there’s a lot of laughing, a lot of cheering and a lot of gratitude that is shared.”
Of course, Kinnucane isn’t the only dedicated volunteer. Special Olympics owes its entire existence to volunteer hours put in by everyone from coaches (who must complete National Coaching Certification Program workshops) to kinesiologists, event officials to chaperones, committee members to drivers.
The beauty of all that hard work? The organization enriches the lives not just of the athletes but also of their families—and of the volunteers who make it happen. Kinnucane says this experience has taught him to be extra patient, flexible and present in the moment. And it brings him joy.
That’s a sentiment Côté Loken has heard, too. “Someone who volunteered to be an ambassador for a bowling team in Peel told me she learned more about being a human in that week than she learned in the first 30 years of her life,” she says. “If you’re watching a bunch of young individuals who have overcome so much stigma and so many barriers, who are kind, lighthearted, committed, strong and resilient, and who see the world as full of possibilities for them, it changes you and changes how you see the world.”
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