Local event starts as assignment

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The quiet morning of Oct. 9 came alive with the spirits of a good cause.

Manhattan City Park was lined with signs displaying words also plastered on the volunteer’s shirts, who flashed pictures and cheered on participants wheeling and walking one-mile laps. Words like courage, joy and character became slogans for “Walk for Unity,” a student-led event.

The walk was aimed to promote community awareness and financial support for the Special Olympics in Manhattan.

The idea for a walk-a-thon, that later evolved to include a game of community kickball, field day games, raffle and dunk tank, was designed to include people of all physical abilities. It was created last January when Susan Leech and Jackie Anschutz, both seniors in social work, were assigned in their social work class to create a project for an at-risk population. Initially, after talking to one of the athletic coaches, the girls were warned their endeavor might be too ambitious, but they were determined to set their sights high nonetheless.

“I’ve been working for the Special Olympics organization for three years, and I didn’t realize they had an affiliation in Manhattan,” Leech said. “It’s close to my heart because people with special needs represent a hidden population with very little advocacy.”

Special Olympics was founded in 1968. It is an international organization serving more than three million athletes with disabilities who work with thousands of volunteers and coaches each year. Organized activities give the individuals the opportunity to develop physical fitness, overcome adversity and learn the skills to create meaningful friendships.

After many hours of planning, including help from the city commissioners, newspaper and radio stations for advertising and K-State’s Department of Housing and Dining Services for spreading the word, things started to fall into place.

Despite Leech’s lack of sleep, she admitted she was impressed with the turnout of an estimated 60 volunteers, 75 preregistered participants and 44 sponsors, including Radina’s Coffee House and Roastery and Olive Garden.

Leech said meeting with the Special Olympics athletes has taught her to be more open-minded and aware of how she lives her life. The event’s goal was to raise $2,000, hoping to aid in team membership, equipment and traveling fees for the Special Olympics.

Dedication seemed to be the common denominator in the operation of the Special Olympics team. For 25 years, certified track and volleyball coach Tamara Hageman said she remembers growing up watching her brothers play sports and being frustrated about kids who were left out because of their physical abilities. After volunteering for her first time at a college track meet, she was hooked.

“These kids help me keep my sanity,” Hageman said. “They make me want to enjoy life and be at peace.”

Though Hageman devotes her time to interacting with her team and is constantly impressed by their sportsmanship and improvement, she insisted it is not all about the sport. She said her team is part of her family, as coaches often double as teachers and friends.

“Why wouldn’t I show up? These students, Leech and Anschutz, are volunteers just like we are, so we want to support each other,” Hageman said. “It’s awesome what they are doing, and we are so appreciative.”

After meeting second-time athlete Malary Morris, it was apparent her confidence resulted from the connections she made in her special education class at Manhattan Elementary.

“All my coaches are so nice, because they always encourage me a lot,” Morris said.

Traveling to places like Topeka and Wichita, she said she enjoys meeting friends through volleyball, basketball and softball, but her favorite is her track relay. Because of the funds provided by events that support the Special Olympics, athletes like Morris do not have to miss out on regional tournaments because of the costs.

When all is said and done, both Leech and Anschutz said they hope to create a continued sponsorship that will keep their event an annual one. The Manhattan Police Department has shown interest in continuing support, as it supports two other local Special Olympics events.

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