Humboldt’s Special Olympics
Story and Images by Denise Villalobos
To a Southern California native like myself, there is no arguing that the beauty of Humboldt County is striking. My six-year residence has become a collection of wonderful memories colored with forest adventures, mesmerizing sunsets and, most importantly, immersing myself in Humboldt’s admirable community.
I’ve come to terms with accepting that my time in gold country has come to an end as one must accept dusk after a glorious day. But before my retreat from the area, I must share with you, fellow stranger or local of Humboldt County, what I’ve discovered to be one of the greatest programs in our area run by an amazing team of people I’ve had the opportunity to work with since 2012: Humboldt County Special Olympics (HCSO).
HCSO is non-profit organization that offers a free, year-round program of coached sports to community members with intellectual disabilities ages five and up. Their training sessions pertain to bowling and basketball during winter; bocce ball, track and field, and aquatics in the spring; softball in the summer; and soccer in the fall. The program currently serves over 200 county athletes, with many participating in more than one sport, forming a very supportive, family-like community between athletes, family members, coaches, and volunteers.
Although attendance isn’t mandatory, athletes who show commitment to a sport by attending all practice sessions are rewarded with the opportunity to represent Humboldt County in the culminating Northern California Special Olympic tournaments at the end of each season.
These two-day trips are a special treat in the eyes of the athletes; they are able to travel as a team with their friends, stay in 3-4 Star rated hotels, relax in swimming pools and gyms, become a part of memorable meals throughout the trip, and ultimately represent Humboldt athleticism against other counties in the region.
Parents and coaches also find these trips to be empowering for their children. In their eyes, athletes are given the extraordinary opportunity to be away from home and develop independence while resting assured that they travel in safe hands.
This year’s most recent sport, basketball, has just come to an end. So many athletes demonstrated commitment to weekly practices and qualified to travel to Windsor for the regional tournament that they had to be divided into five teams based on their individual skill levels. Of the five, I had the privilege of coaching the ‘Humboldt Sea Stars’, special skills athletes who earned Gold medals and made all of us so proud! The other four teams, cunningly named the ‘Lumberjacks’, the ‘Crabs’, the ‘Seals’ and the ‘Redwoods’, were awarded gold, bronze, silver, and 4th place medals respectively, which goes to show how inclusive and respectful the organization is of all skill levels.
Regardless of tournament outcomes, coaches and event staff never fail to remind athletes that having fun is at the heart of the competition. And if a coach isn’t nearby to pose the question, “But did you have fun?”, the Special Olympics motto, stating “Let me win; but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”, is sure to be found on banners, flags, and the backs of t-shirts wherever an athlete’s eyes may turn.
Being a three-year volunteer and becoming the designated Special Skills Coach has equipped me with lasting skills and knowledge that have polished my persona and will empower me in any professional setting in the future. Skills such as listening, communicating thoughts effectively while being mindful, being patient and understanding, and leading by example are just a few of the dozen skills new-day professionals ought to have regardless of career-choice, and these are skills provided by HCSO to anyone involved.
The experience has been as enriching personally as it has been professionally. I have developed unparalleled friendships with my athletes, their families and other coaches, and I walk away with the best memories, connections, and drive to keep supporting individuals with special needs and true hearts of gold. Meeting these amazing athletes would open anybody’s
eyes and heart, especially if you’re in search of volunteer work associated with making a difference in somebody’s life. In the words of an athlete, “It’s an inspiration for me, it’s a good outlet for people that are different to do things. It helps us (earn) respect… If I didn’t get to play I would totally volunteer!”
I must thank professors at HSU for connecting me with HCSO and Claudia Lima, the County’s Area Director for the last six years and mother of a popular Humboldt County athlete. As prosperous as it was, HCSO’s chapter under Claudia’s oversight has come to an end with the announcement of her retirement.
Eyes are setting on new horizons for Claudia, who looks forward to devoting more time to her art studio, as well as Robert Buckman, the new Area Director for HCSO. Though new to the position, Rob has been involved as a volunteer as long as his son has been involved as an athlete, and has learned much from Claudia along the way. When asked how he felt about following in Claudia’s footsteps, he happily responded, “It’s exciting! I’ve worked with athletes as a coach for four years. It’s nothing I thought I’d ever do, but Claudia is retiring so I’m stepping up to the plate.”And with help from his passion-driven team of registered coaches, including Arcata’s former mayor, Mark Wheetley, as well as the many loyal aides, parents, and volunteers, no one doubts HCSO’s success to come.
Through trainings and competitions, HCSO is able to empower individuals with disabilities to reach their fullest human potential. The program’s mission to provide valuable athletic opportunities to children and adults with disabilities instills the confidence needed to succeed in life. The positive impact of participating is available to anyone interested in team sports; after the age of five, it indeed becomes “training for life”.
Are you ready to get involved? In the words of an athlete with ten years of participation points, “If you ever have anybody that’s special needs, look into Special Olympics because it is very inspiring…it’s a great outlet… you meet friends and they become your family. It’s so much fun and its free! It’ll change their life. It’s changed my life.”
HCSO is always in need of volunteers. If you’d like to take part in the empowering experience, or make either a resource or financial donation, contact Robert Buckman at (707) 601-5728, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow the organization’s new Facebook page: Humboldt County Special Olympics.