Stillwater’s Part in the Special Olympics

Story by Jeffrey Anderson

Summer has rolled into Stillwater once again bringing intense heat, the exodus of students from OSU, and the arrival of athletes for the Special Olympic Games. Thousands of people chose to come from all across the state to compete in the games and reside in our town for the duration of the Special Olympics. Upon arrival, they were greeted by a combination of volunteers from Special Olympics Oklahoma and from Stillwater. This year marks the 36th year that Special Olympics Oklahoma, or SOOK, has had the competitions hosted in Stillwater. Originally the Special Olympics were held Tulsa, where the organization was established. Of greater note, this year marks the 50th Special Olympics to take place in Oklahoma since our state’s branch of the international organization was established in Tulsa in 1969. Naturally, this requires a celebration of the organization’s successes and goals since its establishment. The Special Olympics Oklahoma chapter displayed a celebration at the opening ceremony with a firework show.

The international website of the organization lists the history of their founding, with a more summarized version available on the SOOK website. The organization itself was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, with the first Special Olympics held in Chicago, Illinois. She spent most of her life helping the intellectually disabled prove their athletic abilities due to her sister being excluded from many activities because of her own disability. This culminated in a day summer camp called ‘Camp Shriver’, which would evolve into the first Special Olympics. Aside from helping establish what would become Special Olympics as we know it, she spent her life working to provide various opportunities for intellectually disabled athletes. Her works included running the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation after 1957 and pioneering the “Community of Caring” programs in the 1980s. She continued to advocate for people with intellectual disabilities until her death in 2009. To this day, the organization and its various branches have persisted in giving athletes with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to prove themselves.

A local feature of the Special Olympics that deserves to be highlighted is the numerous volunteers that make the events possible. From businesses offering official support or their locations for the competitions, such as Lakeside Memorial Golf Course, to dozens of people working the Special Olympics as volunteers to keep the event running. There are volunteers who work to set the competitions up for the athletes, maintain the Olympic Village, and handle catering.

As a person who has worked in the service industry for several years, the group I could represent the best in greater detail is the University Dining Services. They are composed of volunteers working to keep the athletes staying on OSU campus fed and hydrated between events and after the games that take place during the day. The volunteers for this can be divided into three groups based on what they do with catering. The students who choose to stay behind after the semester and volunteer at the Special Olympics, the staff who elected to get more shifts, and volunteers from outside the establishment. Together, these groups work to feed the athletes and their families as part of their stay here in Stillwater.

One such volunteer is Stillwater resident Abigael Eubanks, who has been part of the Special Olympics volunteer programs for the last three years. She has worked between the catering group and serving as a caretaker for the dorms where the athletes stay on campus. When asked why she chose to begin working as a volunteer with this group, she said, “Because I wanted to help with special needs kids, due to my family being involved with helping disabled children.” Ms. Eubanks also has family a member that works as a teacher for children with intellectual disabilities. With the work she has done, Ms. Eubanks has proven to have a willingness to help others simply for the sake of it that many, myself included, lack. When asked why she continues working as a volunteer at this event, she said, “Seeing their smiles after each competition they’ve done, every medal won, after the dance, it just warms my heart and makes me smile to see how excited they are about everything. I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I could.” This is a sentiment that is echoed across the volunteer staff.

Ms. Eubanks is a single individual amongst the dozens of people both from Stillwater and outside it who are an absolute necessity to ensure that the Special Olympics is a success. The people of Stillwater have supported Special Olympics since the competitions were moved here in 1983. Local businesses have provided official support and sponsorships to ensure the Special Olympics will have the funding to continue operations. For fifty years, the people of Oklahoma have volunteered to keep the Special Olympics running supporting its mission to provide Oklahomans with intellectual disabilities with “opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.” With continuing volunteer support Special Olympics Oklahoma will thrive for another fifty years so that we may celebrate its 100th year.