It’s the ‘pure joy’ moments Tana Manchester loves best.
And since becoming the co-ordinator of Sarnia’s Special Olympics chapter 15 months ago — and overseeing its rapid expansion — she’s had plenty of them.
“It’s a real pick-me-up,” she said. “I love the raw emotion. Sometimes I’m beaming so much my face hurts. These kids are happy whether they win or lose.”
Among the athletes is Manchester’s 13-year-old daughter, Emma, who has an intellectual disability. The difficulty of finding Emma organized sports is what prompted Manchester to take on the position.
“We don’t want these kids sitting in the house. We want them to have good quality of life,” she said.
The re-establishment of a Special Olympics chapter here is paying dividends for local families. And success is breeding success, with more than 70 athletes registered so far this year — tripling the number who took part in 2017.
The popularity of Special Olympics Sarnia is taking off with volunteers as well. Some 75 volunteers are on board, including high school and elementary students who are classmates of Special Olympians.
Emma Manchester is a member of the Sarnia Dolphins swim team, which has been going strong for years. But there were no other sports available for children with intellectual challenges, her mom said.
Emma tried playing on a regular girl’s basketball team, and while she was OK with the drills and warm-ups, the games were too fast for her.
Manchester’s interest in Special Olympics was piqued when the provincial arm of the organization put on an information seminar here.
“I knew this is exactly what Emma needs, what the community needs and what I need,” she said. “It promotes inclusion and has a social aspect.”
Teams are co-ed and participants can begin playing at age eight. There is no upper limit age restriction and one participant is 42-years -old.
Regardless of age, new participants are often wary the first time out. Most have never played an organized sport before and concept is foreign to them.
But not for long, Manchester said.
“We have a lot of very shy kids. They have intellectual disabilities and many are non-verbal. But they soon get over their shyness and the kids and their parents start having fun.”
Special Olympics Sarnia has a growing lineup that now includes basketball, baseball, hockey, swimming, and powerlifting, with soccer and track and field set to begin on May 15.
The organization received $600 in seed money, but the rest comes from fundraising. A number of organizations have stepped forward with donations, including $10,000 from 100 Women Who Care Sarnia-Lambton.
Manchester said it’s important to keep costs low so athletes can afford to participate, and the caregivers — some who are aging parents — can provide their children with equipment and transportation.
“As caregivers, we are always on. It can be isolating at times,” Manchester said. “It’s nice to have people to talk to that get it.”
The basketball group has come a long way over the past year. In October it attended a London tournament for the second time.
“They got destroyed the first time,” Manchester said. “One year later, they all did so well.
“But they’re hugging and laughing even when they lose.”