More than just sports, Special Olympics expands horizons of children & adults in the River Parishes

Published 1:32 pm Thursday, March 17, 2022

DESTREHAN — While Special Olympics is known for inclusion through sports for people with and without intellectual disabilities, the organization’s impact in the River Parishes expands far beyond athletics.

St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes are part of Special Olympics Louisiana Area 3 – Bayouland. Children and adults ages 8 to 99 can stay active while building confidence and social skills through a close-knit team bond.

After two years of being limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, Special Olympics is bouncing back with bocce and track and field practice beginning the week of April 8. Practices will be held from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at Destrehan High School’s stadium.

The organization is searching for more volunteers, coaches and athletes to enjoy a wide variety of sports and social events.

Organizer Connie Love has been involved in Special Olympics since she was a child in the 1970s. After her youngest son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism, Special Olympics became even more meaningful to her family.

“It’s a confidence and self-esteem builder,” Love said. “Our athletes meet new people that are like them. They make friends, and it really broadens their horizon.”

Donna Young’s 31-year-old son has been involved in Special Olympics since he was 9 or 10. The opportunity has shown his family that there are no limits to what he can achieve.

“Come to find out, he could do what other kids could do with a smaller group and more people helping him,” Young said. “Special Olympics is awesome. I would recommend it to any parent with a special needs child. The program has uplifted my son and me.”

Basketball, track and field, bocce, bowling, softball and swimming are offered to athletes, but Love reminds the community that Special Olympics is more than sports.

On April 2, athletes will enjoy an Easter egg party sponsored by the St. Charles Catholic High School Beta Club.

“We do Halloween parties, Christmas parties and bowling parties. Sometimes we go to the movies, have pizza parties, or go to high school football games. There are many things we do where they can engage and interact,” Love said.

Another part of the organization is Healthy Athletes, which promotes good eating habits and offers medical screenings and services necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“We refer children out where they don’t have to pay if they need dental work or if they need glasses. We also do hearing and vision screenings,” Love said.

Children in the local school systems who have a learning disability or an IEP can benefit from Special Olympics. Even individuals without intellectual disabilities can participate, according to Love. Unified Sports break down stereotypes by allowing individuals of all abilities to compete together and learn from one another.

State level competition is open to athletes ages 8 and up. Meanwhile, the Young Athletes program includes sports and activities for children ages 2 to 7. Through play, the youngest athletes learn about balance, interaction with their peers and how to follow directions.

Some Special Olympics athletes showcase their talents on a national and global scale.

Love’s son, Michael, will represent Louisiana in swimming this June at the USA National Games in Orlando. He is turning 19 this year, and the progress he’s shown through participating in Special Olympics has been astounding.

“I’ve been involved in Special Olympics as a parent for 15 years,” Love said. “My son was non-verbal. He started participating and next thing you know, he’s not shy. He started trying to form words. When you see your child change because of special Olympics, it changes you. To see all these other children and the things that they do, it’s just amazing. It’s an organization full of love.”

Another River Parishes athlete representing Louisiana at the USA National Games is 27-year-old Oneil Legendre.

Oneil started participating in Special Olympics while attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2015. He joined the local team after moving back to St. Charles Parish in 2020.

“He started off in track and field, and since then, we’ve been on a roll,” his mother, Renee Legendre, said. “He’s very athletic, very competitive. He gets involved with any type of sport, whether he knows it or not. One of the events was bocce. He had never heard anything about it. He watched some YouTube videos, caught on and loved it.”

Oneil will play basketball at the USA games, and both he and Michael will have an opportunity to qualify for the World Games in Berlin, Germany.

“Any event we go to for Special Olympics is top notch,” Legendre said. “They go all out to make all of these athletes feel great about themselves and that they are part of a big family. No matter if they come out with a medal, they make them feel that they have done their best.”

For more information about Special Olympics in the River Parishes, call Connie Love at 985-618-6246 or email conlizmorg@gmail.com. The state office can be reached at laso.org or by calling 985-345-6644 or 1-800-345-6644.