Special Olympics fundraiser makes it possible for area athletes to shine

Members of the Fillmore County Eagles Special Olympics dance with Elvis tribute artist Brad Boice during a Special Olympics fundraiser. COURTESY OF BRAD BOICE
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Ever meet an Eagle with an outlet?

That’s something so, so Special.

“It’s exciting, just giving them an outlet to exercise and play sports, and seeing their faces during competitions. It gives them more confidence and affirms that they can do it,” stated Gina Ommen-Flaby, coordinator of Fillmore County’s delegation of Special Olympics, also known as the Fillmore County Eagles.

Ommen-Flaby has been the local Special Olympics coordinator for the past decade, but she cited that Special Olympics has been offering sporting events for its athletes with differing abilities for at least the past three decades in Fillmore County, and currently, the program offers bowling, basketball, track and field and bocce ball.

“We have about 25 or so athletes, and I have about ten coaches or volunteers who help with the teams,” she explained. “Participation gives them times to hang with their friends, and it also gives them something to look forward to for the week, and competing does grow their confidence. They are fun-loving individuals, just like you and I, that enjoy participating in events and being a part of a team.”

No less than half a century ago, being part of a team was something hard to do if one had Down Syndrome or any other intellectual disability like the athletes on the Eagles team.

The Special Olympics website outlined the history of the organization, crediting its founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, for starting the organization in the early 1960s. Her dream started in her backyard and her vision was to transform the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and public perceptions through sports. She started Camp Shriver at her Maryland farm, Timberlawn. She asked special schools and clinics in her area to provide names of special needs children who might be interested. “Then she recruited high school and college students to act as counselors,” the website said. “It was almost a one-on-one situation – 34 children, 26 counselors. To almost everyone’s surprise – the exception being Eunice – it was an instant success. The children swam, kicked soccer balls, shot baskets and rode horses under the summer sun.”

The history recounted that one of the most important developments, aside from the campers being able to interact with one another and with children their own ages who did not have disabilities, was that the counselors gained insight on how these individuals “merely wanted to have fun, just like every other kid.”

The camp grew over the years and eventually was replaced by a larger and grander facility. Park districts across the country began programs in their own communities that were modeled after the Olympics and Kennedy Shriver asked them to enlarge the scope to include athletes from around the country, which eventually grew into the Special Olympics movement.

By August of 1968, Special Olympics was officially incorporated, and Kennedy Shriver is among the board of directors’ membership when the board was established in December 1968.

Over the ensuing years, the organization would grow to encompass not only children, but people of all ages whose abilities are simply different than another’s.

In July 2016, new census numbers show that Special Olympics' reach has expanded to more than 5.3 million athletes and Unified partners — a new global record. Athletes in nearly 170 countries took part in more than 108,000 games and competitions.

Ommen-Flaby appreciates that Special Olympics in Fillmore County is fortunate to have the support of local businesses and individuals who donate to the delegation to allow the athletes to reach their potential.

“Our athletes do pay for their games of bowling and some costs of hotel fees if needed, but for the most part, the delegation pays for everything,” she said.

And because of the delegation’s commitment to paying for what the athletes need, the Eagles will host their annual Fillmore County Special Olympics fundraiser this Sunday, Sept. 23, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Harmony Community Center.

The coordinator stated the fundraiser is a particularly important one, as it raises awareness of the needs the delegation has, garners the funds that make it possible for the delegation to support its athletes in their sporting and socialization endeavors, and it introduces the public to the athletes.

“It shows our community what is being offered to our people with disabilities and integrating them with the community. Brad Boice – ‘Elvis’ – will be performing, we’ll have a silent auction, meat raffles, bake sale, root beer floats, ice cream sundaes and the Harmony Lions Club serving food – there will be the bake sale items, root beer floats, sundaes and the Lions serving brats, hot dogs, barbecues, chips, pop and water,” she said.

The silent auction will offer a wide range of items, including gift certificates.

“This is our biggest fundraiser of the year and how we get the majority of the funds for the year,” Ommen-Flaby said. “All the proceeds stay in Fillmore County – we use the funds for hotels, game fees, new equipment, clothing, et cetera. Also, our athletes love ‘Elvis’ – he is very interactive with all the athletes and very enjoyable to watch and listen to. The dancing with him is a big thing for all of our athletes. At past fundraisers, the most fun has been the raffles and ‘Elvis.’ I like seeing all the people and what’s going to be on the silent auction, and ‘Elvis,’ of course.”

Chatfield Elvis tribute artist Boice commented that performing for – and with – the athletes has become one of his and his wife JulAnn’s favorite gigs.

“We’ve been entertaining for the Fillmore County Special Olympics fundraiser for several years, and it is one of our favorite shows to do,” he said. “The athletes are so much fun to be around. They are usually on the edge of their seats, more than ready to come up and dance, sing, play air guitar, entertain the audience!”

Boice recalled that during the first year they were invited to entertain for the Fillmore County Special Olympics fundraiser, he sang a couple songs onstage, then jumped down onto the floor and asked all the athletes to come and dance with him.

“That was all it took. I was swarmed with dancers for basically the rest of the show,” he said. “Now, years later, it’s kind of a guaranteed tradition that the athletes join me. I have to say, for this event, I may be the entertainment, but the athletes are the show!”

Boice also remarked, “The one thing that really impresses me is that they truly care about one another. They are just as happy to see one of their friends or fellow athletes win as they would be had they won themselves. We could definitely learn a few things from their example.”

Ommen-Flaby invited the public to stop in and have a good time at the fundraiser this Sunday evening at the Harmony community center on Harmony’s northeast side.

“Everyone is welcome,” she said.

The coordinator reiterated that Special Olympics makes an impact in the lives of its athletes by providing them with interaction and challenge.

“It’s a great organization to provide an outlet for our athletes to be on a team and play sports. If you would like to become a volunteer or coach, please contact me, Gina Ommen-Flaby, at 507-951-2636 or at gommenflaby@gmail.com,” she concluded.

And the Boices gave the fundraising event a top score as well, with Brad extending his own invitation. “If you have never been to this event, JulAnn and I hope you will consider attending. This special, heartwarming event is truly something.”