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Decade of change

Santa Clarita Special Olympics celebrates its 10th anniversary

Posted: December 20, 2008 9:55 p.m.
Updated: December 21, 2008 4:55 a.m.

The Santa Clarita Special Olympics celebrates it 10th anniversary. Established in 1998, the Santa Clarita chapter has grown by leaps and bounds, now boasting 400 athletes, nearly 1,000 volunteers and has peaked at 17 different sports.

 
A woman answers the phone at Sierra Vista Junior High with so much pride.

"Did you know there were movies filmed there?" she says of the building. "What's that one movie? Oh yeah. ‘Mr. Woodcock' was filmed there. They cleaned it up so nice."

It's now a weight room.

But before that, it was the Canyon Country school's gymnasium.

That building has created more pride than the woman could ever imagine.

Ten years ago, in that gymnasium, eight athletes found rebirth and subsequently Special Olympics in the Santa Clarita was born.

Eight athletes became 400 athletes.

One volunteer became nearly 1,000 volunteers.

One basketball practice became 17 sports, later scaled back to 12.

Along the way there have been stories of personal glory.

Like Colbert Williams.

Williams, a year-around Special Olympian, has taken the confidence and inner-strength he learned from the program to become a coach for the organization. He lives independently. He worked for 14 years at a local Pizza Hut, missing only one day of work because of a doctor's appointment. He now works at Vons supermarket.

Maybe you know him. According to the ladies at the Special Olympics office in Newhall, he's a local celebrity.

The office is another thing.

When Special Olympics in the Santa Clarita Valley first started, it was operated from the kitchen of Maureen Spindt, whose daughter Janelle was one of the eight athletes who participated in that basketball practice at Sierra Vista Junior High.

"The parents were so enthusiastic," Spindt says of the first practice. "Maybe a little skeptical (though)."

Santa Clarita Valley parents used to have to take their kids to Tarzana and surrounding points because there was no Special Olympics in the area.

Don Zennie, a Special Olympics volunteer from Santa Clarita, took initiative.

He organized that first basketball practice and started what would become something much bigger.

Zennie, 47 at the time, didn't have a child in the program.

While living in Westchester, Zennie had a neighbor who was a Special Olympian.

The young man would come over to Zennie's house, shoot pool and hang out.

"He needed a ride to basketball practice (one day). I went and have been going ever since," Zennie says. "My story is similar to a majority of the volunteers. You get bitten and you're addicted."

Now 57, Zennie recalls that first practice with a laugh.

He remembers soliciting volunteers from the stands.

"Maureen was following me around the floor. She was my shadow," Zennie says. "I was trying to focus and she's asking, ‘Can I do something?'"

Maybe she didn't know it at the time, but that question was bigger than its original intent.

Zennie started Special Olympics Santa Clarita Valley and Spindt was soon enlisted to help.

"I pitched in as much as I could," she says.

One of her first roles was as a grant writer.

A $300,000 grant helped get Special Olympics off her kitchen table and into an office.

Spindt, along with her husband Gary would later receive the torch from Zennie as area directors.

Under the Spindts from 1999 to 2005, Special Olympics received huge support, in terms of volunteers and financial aid.

That support helped bring the first local area games to the Santa Clarita Valley in May, 2002.

Close to 1,000 athletes participated at Hart High, Newhall Park, Placerita Junior High and the Newhall Boys & Girls Club.

The Opening Ceremonies became the moment of establishment for Special Olympics Santa Clarita Valley.

"The biggest thing was the parade of athletes," Spindt says. "We had this sea of teal and black (the colors of the SCV region) shirts. There were teal and black pom-poms. It was a very special moment for all involved in program."

Through their success and the success of their daughter Janelle, the Spindts were able to meet some important people.

One of which was Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

It just so happens that the 10-year anniversary of SCV Special Olympics coincides with the 40-year anniversary of the organization.

Shriver started a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities in 1962 called "Camp Shriver."

She took it a step beyond by partnering with Chicago physical education teacher Anne McGlone Burke to bring about the first Special Olympics Games, which were held at Soldier Field.

Shriver announced the formation of Special Olympics during those first games.

Over the years, many local athletes have competed in the World Summer and Winter Games, including Janelle.

Marisa Watkins, a 15-year-old who has autism, will compete in the upcoming Winter Games in Boise, Idaho in February.

The majority of Special Olympians don't get to compete on that level, yet they share a common bond.

They're competitive athletes.

Zennie learned that early.

One day a basketball team he coached was out-sized by its opponents.

Zennie recalls thinking his team had no chance.
He was way off.

"Our team steeped up and played better than I'd ever seen and we beat them," Zennie recalls. "I thought to myself that I handicapped them beyond their disability because I didn't stretch them enough. It's our duty (as volunteers) to help them be the best they can be. They can do it. There are a lot of things people think they can't do."

There is a lingering perception about people with intellectual disabilities. The perception that they can't.

Special Olympics, those involved say, proves they can.

Another misconception is that athletes are children.

Jerry Friedman bucks both of those misconceptions.

Friedman is 79 years old and competes in rhythmic gymnastics.

At one event, he was told that he couldn't.

Friedman is in a wheelchair and was told that he couldn't be brought onto the mat and that he had to participate from the side.

He insisted on competing on the mat.

He did.

"I think they just want to be treated as anyone else," says current area director Laura Mayo.

It's one of many stories she has.

She now holds the torch as area director and receives assistance from Wendy Lorton, the area's sports manager.

Lorton has seen so much growth over the seven years she has been involved - much of it personal growth from athletes to volunteers.

The volunteers feel gratification for their assistance.
There are athletes who were silent members of society before who now have strong voice.

Most importantly, they have pride.

Many athletes walk into the Newhall office with smiles as bright as the gold medals hanging from their necks.
Lorton has understands them.

"An athlete is an athlete is an athlete," she says.

cosborne@the-signal.com


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