Area 22 Special Olympics returns to the Ryder Center

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SVSU hosted its 10th Area 22 Special Olympics on Friday, April 20, in the Ryder Center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Between 300 and 400 SVSU students and community volunteers came together for the event, which was partially hosted by Cardinals for Special Olympics under the direction of President Madison Kowaleski and Vice President Brendan Kiel.

Both students joined Cardinals for Special Olympics two years ago and have enjoyed the leadership and hands-on skills they have gained from coordinating the event.

“I wanted to volunteer because my first major was special education,” Kowaleski said. “So I’m getting experience within my field, but I also get leadership experience.”

As an occupational therapy (O.T.) major, Kiel also joined Cardinals for Special Olympics for the experience.

“Working with this population and other SVSU students is a great way for us all to come together and get experience before I actually start my career,” Kiel said.

Planning for the event went smoothly, thanks largely to help from the Area 22 management team, who set the event up.

“The only really stressful part (of planning) is raising the money,” Kowaleski said. “This year, it’s been really easy because we had extra money from last year.”

Cardinals for Special Olympics must raise $4,000 to cover the costs for the games.

This year’s games included track and field events such as sprints, long distance runs and ball tosses. Earlier in the day, swimming events also took place. Athletes also had access to a dance room, crafts room, wheelchair races and a sensory room managed by SVSU O.T. students.

The sensory room was a new addition to the SVSU Special Olympics.

“We had some suggestions from O.T. that a sensory room would add some creative benefits for us,” Kiel said. “They brought in their own supplies, and they made some crafts with the kids and played with finger paints and stuff like that.”

This year, Cardinals for Special Olympics was able to widen the doorways through which athletes entered the gym.

“We have about 600 or so athletes coming in through our doors, and getting them and volunteers paired up was pretty stressful last year,” Kowaleski said.

Kiel continues to participate in Special Olympics because of the happiness he feels watching the community come together.

“My favorite part is watching SVSU students, high school students, community athletes and volunteers participate together and all the smiles on everyone’s faces and the dancing,” Kiel said.

Kowaleski also enjoys seeing the joy the event brings to the community.

“(The athletes) get so excited when they come, and watching them actually do what they came here to do is awesome,” Kowaleski said.

Kiel hopes that the volunteers realize the importance of the work they did for Special Olympics.

“I hope volunteers take a step back and look at some of the challenges these athletes have,” Kiel said. “I hope they let them have their day to shine and get their ribbon.”

Volunteers such as Mia Berlanga, a junior from Nouvel Catholic Central High School, found the event eye-opening.

“Every year, we come here as juniors and seniors as a vocation day,” Berlanga said. “I am glad I came out. I didn’t know anything, because no one in my family has motor skills problems. I learned that they’re just regular kids, and it was fun.”

Autumn VanDamme, an education freshman and Cardinals for Special Olympics member, was also happy to volunteer.

“It’s a lot of fun to see all the kids,” VanDamme said. “They have a lot of fun. You can see the impact that you make on them. That’s really cool because you know it’s an experience that they’ll remember all their lives.”

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