So Much Fun!
Giant smiles were plastered on the faces of Kauai’s Special Olympic athletes earlier this month, even though they were about to plunge into ice-cold water, when Special Olympics Kauai (SO), which provides sports training and competition to children and adults with cognitive disabilities, sponsored its annual Polar Plunge fundraiser in Wailua. Despite the blustery, rainy weather and chilly water, there was no shortage of joy.
“They feel like family to me,” says Jocelyn Barriga, SO Kauai area director, about the athletes as she watches them during the event.
Proceeds from the fundraiser help SO Kauai’s program, which offers seasonal sports for ages 8 and older, including softball, soccer, bocce, swimming and bowling. Right now, they are training for the April 22 track and field meet.
“This is part of my life,” says Chad Okino, who has been a SO athlete for the past 11 years.
Okino, 22, also takes part in bowling and swimming, but it’s track and field in which he excels. He’s taken home several gold, silver and bronze medals at past Kauai meets, and he’s even won gold at the state level, including for the field event, running long jump.
“He loves it,” says mom Letty, who volunteers for the organization.
Okino, who currently competes with the adult SO delegation, has no problem verifying the truth of his mom’s statement.
“I love the fun and friends, and having a good time,” he says.
Kauai has about 120 SO athletes just like Okino who receive benefits. By being a member, which is completely free of charge and includes training programs twice a week, athletes gain lifelong friends. They also build confidence, which helps them in all aspects of life. The experience can provide them with courage to become more independent and even obtain jobs.
“It (SO) benefits everything,” says Barriga.
What makes the athletics even more advantageous is that everyone is given an equal opportunity to participate in all events, no matter their skill level.
“Anybody can have a chance to go to nationals,” says Barriga.
Two years ago, three Hawaii athletes competed in SO’s national 2015 World Games in Los Angeles. One of those competitors, Chaunci Cummings, represented Kapaa High School. She participated in track and field, and brought home a silver medal for the 100-meter dash, a bronze medal for the 4×100-meter relay and won fifth place for shot put.
Providing opportunities like this for athletes is something SO continues to expand on. Unified sports are another way positive experiences have come about for SO Kauai’s athletes. The program allows athletes to team up with a student from their school who doesn’t have intellectual disabilities to train and compete together as a team — something that helps promote social inclusion and destigmatizes cognitive disabilities.
About 80 unified partners have joined SO athletes thus far, and the program continues to grow.
“It’s beginning to get really big on Kauai,” says Barriga.
Some of the students now training with SO athletes were unsure of the program at first — but that was before they realized how much fun they would have once barriers and initial fears broke down.
“And the athletes feel good because they’re part of their friends now,” says Barriga.
While running the organization can get tiring for Barriga, especially when it comes to financial sustainability, she says it’s worth it.
“When you see the smile on their face and the accomplishments, it’s so hard to walk away from,” she says.
The Waimea High School grad took on her SO Kauai role about 14 years ago, when a friend asked her to take the reins. She didn’t know much about the organization at the time, aside from occasionally volunteering, but it wasn’t long before she was hooked.
“It kind of grew on me,” she says.
And she can’t say enough about the community’s persistent support.
“If it wasn’t for all the big hearts on Kauai, there’s no way we’d be able to raise all the money we need every year to run our program,” she says.
She’s also received support from husband Hank, a retired Kauai Police Department captain, who helped launch the SO Kauai fundraiser Cop on Top. Each year, police officers raise awareness for the organization and collect donations while perched atop a roof at businesses such as Walmart.
Without the community’s support, athletes like Chad Okino wouldn’t receive the many benefits the organization has to offer. It’s why his mother has continued to serve as a volunteer for more than a decade and has no plans to quit. “We’ll be in this organization for a lifetime,” she says. “It’s a lifetime mission for us.”