Special Olympics Creates Golden Friendships

Conor Scanlon, Staff Reporter

From ski slopes to the soccer pitch, over the past year Whitman College students have been developing partnerships with the Walla Walla chapter of Special Olympics Washington. With an emphasis on creating friendships, Special Olympics pairs local young adults who live with various physical and mental disabilities with volunteers to compete in several different sports.

For six years, Whitman’s Buddy Program has served as the main unifier of Whitman students and Walla Walla locals with physical and mental disabilities. Program members meet once every other week to spend an afternoon playing games, creating crafts and forging bonds.

“It helps to connect our campus to this culture of different abilities, which is a diversity we don’t have as much on campus and is really great at promoting friendship and breaking down barriers and stigmas,”Whitman sophomore and Buddy Program President Leah Shaffner said. 

Some Buddy Program participants are also involved in the Walla Walla Special Olympics organization. Nearly every weekend so far this winter the group has headed up to the Bluewood Ski Area. Several Whitman students have accompanied the “Bluewood Bombers” on their trips and volunteer by providing extra guidance on chairlifts and with directions. 

“I really value the relationships I’ve developed with everyone. Everyone’s always so excited to hangout and chat about their time skiing,” stated Shaffner.

Founded in the late 1960s, the Walla Walla branch of Special Olympics Washington hosts year-round athletic competitions in sports like bowling, swimming, skiing, softball, and track and field. Last spring, a soccer team comprised of five Whitman students and five young adults with disabilities participated in the Special Olympics Unified Soccer Tournament in Seattle, Washington. In a weekend full of making new friends from across the state, the Walla Walla team went on to win their division of the 12-team tournament.  

“Special Olympics tries to make that line disappear so everyone’s having fun and everyone’s playing as a team,” Whitman junior Jeanette Schwensen said. Schwensen was a team captain and organized the trip to Seattle. 

Jenni Reardon is a Walla Walla community member who has participated in Special Olympics events. She said that her favorite thing about the tournament was “making new friends and playing different teams.”

“Special Olympics can change your life,” Reardon added. 

Reardon still regularly stays in contact with her teammates and friends from the tournament.

Both Shaffner and Schwensen find the program to be extremely powerful not only for the athletes, but for Whitman volunteers as well. They want Whitman students to be aware that these opportunities to volunteer exist as well as to recognize that this type of diversity exists.

“There’s such a wide diversity of ability I think people don’t have as much exposure to. I think Special Olympics is a really great way to get involved and learn a little bit more about a population that isn’t as well known,” explained Shaffner.

There are many opportunities for Whitman students to get involved with Special Olympics and to help grow the relationship between the College and the organization. While the ski season is almost over, the group will need volunteers after Spring Break to help with track and field practices.

Students are also encouraged to pledge to the Special Olympics Spread the Word to End the Word movement, which emphasizes the importance of eliminating the use of the word “retard” from everyday speech. Contact Leah Shaffner at [email protected] and Jeanette Schwensen at [email protected] for information about Special Olympics volunteer opportunities.