USF hosts regional Special Olympics

The 2005 World Winter Games finished up in Nagano, Japan, last week. Qualifying rounds for the 2005 State Summer Games come to the USF Soccer Stadium on Saturday, March 19, and one USF class is having a hard time filling the stadium.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t interested,” said Nancy Vidall, a junior majoring in magazine journalism who’s in an Honors undergraduate research class leading the volunteer recruitment effort for this spring’s Special Olympics Area 8 Games.

The 10 students of the Major Works/Major Issues class are organizing phone lists, contacting friends, family and veteran volunteers to referee, cheer on and buddy up with the 800 to 1,100 athletes expected to compete at the tri-county athletic competition.

“When we call the phone numbers, the (old contact) doesn’t work there anymore; nobody wants to step up and take the challenge,” Vidall said.

Since 1968, when a thousand North American athletes competed in the first International Special Olympics Summer Games held in Chicago, Ill., the international organization has grown to serve over one million athletes in 150 countries and still depends on volunteers to staff most of its year-round events. For the past three years, thousands of intellectually disabled athletes have traveled to USF from across the state to compete in track and field, bocce, cycling, soccer, tennis, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics and motorized wheelchair events at the Area 8 (Hillsborough, Highland and Polk) and state levels. Athletes are as young as eight years old or decades older, and some have trained all year.

“I knew we were hosting both games,” said professor Eric Hunter, who teaches Major Works/Major Issues and is working director of USF’s Campus Recreation Center. “(The students) jumped all over (it) and wanted to try and help and make the games a success. It says a lot about their personalities.”

Hunter saw another round of basketball championships finish up last month in the Rec Center. He said although some volunteer groups return year after year because they enjoy working with the Special Olympians so much, it is difficult to convince individuals to spend a day in the sun doing something that might be unfamiliar to them.

“People lead busy lives and they might not see the value,” Hunter said. “Ideally, each athlete will have a buddy.”

One way in which volunteers help out is by being “buddies” to the athletes. Every athlete is matched with a volunteer who stays with the competitor throughout his/her events. Buddies are not only essential to the Special Olympians competing and getting to their awards ceremonies on time, but also to cheer on and encourage the athletes.

“(Being) buddies is a big thing because they stay with the athlete,” said Vidall. “They take them from their first event to their second event. They give them water. They keep them on track and they take them to get their lunch in the middle of the day and to their awards.”

Jocylinn Andrews, a junior majoring in special education, was a first-time volunteer who score checked at February’s basketball competitions in the Rec Center.

“It’s no different than volunteering with any other sports,” Andrews said. “There’s no reason to be hesitant thinking that it’s different.”

This is the first year the event is holding a brief volunteer orientation to educate and outline volunteers’ responsibilities and expectations for the day. Everyone is welcome to come, said Tom Denham, Hillsborough County Coordinator for Special Olympics.

“We will do our best to accommodate (volunteers),” Denham said. “We will not turn anyone away … especially if they have some sort of expertise or interest.”

Volunteers receive Special Olympics T-shirts and tickets for a meal at the Olympic Village and they may request to work a specific event or stay however long they can.

“I think the USF students will benefit more than the athletes in seeing how much joy the athletes get in achieving (their) goals,” Hunter said.

For further information on volunteering for Special Olympics, contact Hunter’s Honors class at or Denham at .