Overland Park & Leawood

Special Olympics fosters a sense of community

Nan Kanter was always looking for a way for her son, Michael, to stay active in the community. But in the late 1980s there weren’t a lot of options for special needs children in the Blue Valley school district.

So Kanter, with the help of the Blue Valley School District and the Blue Valley Recreation Commission, formed the city’s first Special Olympics team. They started in January 1989 with only a basketball team and 10 athletes.

“Things have changed,” she said. “It seems the acceptance wasn’t there 25 years ago.”

Now Blue Valley Special Olympics has almost 180 athletes from 8 to 60 years old competing in at least one of the 13 sports offered, including basketball, cheerleading, swimming, tennis, track and field, softball, T-ball, golf, bowling, volleyball, soccer and even bocce ball.

On Nov. 2, Blue Valley Special Olympics will hold its annual Bowl-a-Thon at AMF College Lanes at 10201 College Blvd. Kanter, who has been the program’s director from the beginning, said it’s the organization’s only fundraiser. While the group does charge a small fee for each sport, if a participant can’t afford it, they waive the fee. So the Bowl-a-thon provides most of the BV Special Olympics funding for equipment and entrance fees into the several local and state competitions athletes participate in every year.

All those sports and competitions are important to special needs athletes, Kanter said. Participating in Special Olympics gives the athletes a sense of community, which they might not otherwise have.

“That’s his social life,” she said, talking about her son who has a developmental disability. “This gives him something to look forward too.”

Betse Gage, whose 26-year-old son, Craig Chase, is a Special Olympics athlete, has seen the benefits of the being involved with the organization.

“When other kids were out playing soccer or T-ball, he wasn’t able to,” she said. “This helped him feel like part of a team.”

Craig suffered a stroke when he was only 2 years old, which left him cognitively impaired and unable to see from mid-field to the left. Unlike some children with special needs, she said, her son is extremely social, but his disability made it hard for him to play and participate with other kids his age. For 20 years, her son has been part of the Special Olympics, where he’s formed most of his strong friendships, including one with Kanter’s son.

“He’s like 12 years older than Craig, but they get along great,” she said.

Her son participates in most of the sports including basketball, volleyball, track, tennis and bowling. Because of his condition, Craig doesn’t actually compete in sports like basketball, but practices regularly with the team and competes in bowling and track.

In addition to the socialization, the exercise benefits the athletes.

“As a pediatrician, what worries me about the special needs population is the sedentary life, especially as they get older,” Gage said.

Kanter said working with the athletes has been the most rewarding thing about being a part of the Special Olympics.

“Whenever you’re down and out just go to one of their practices,” she said. “These athletes are always happy and upbeat. It really boosts your spirits.”