First of three parts. See part 2 and part 3.
Thousands of athletes, coaches and supporters are arriving on the Central Michigan University campus.
They're here to celebrate the annual Special Olympics Michigan State Summer Games, where athletes of all ages will compete in sports such as bowling, gymnastics, powerlifting, track and field, bowling, and swimming.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the organization committed to providing sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with disabilities. Founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, Special Olympics Inc. held the first national games at Soldier Field in Chicago. Michigan sent a delegation to that inaugural event and held its own games the very next year.
In a decades-spanning partnership with Special Olympics Michigan, CMU hosted its first event in the fall of 1972 and then held the inaugural State Summer Games in the summer of 1973. Since that time, students, faculty and staff from around campus have been a part of making the games possible.
Here's a quick look at how it all comes together to create one life-changing experience for the athletes. In part one of this three-part series, learn how volunteer members of the games committee work behind the scenes to create a fun, welcoming atmosphere.
200-plus years of experience
Since the very first games in the early 1970s, volunteers from nearly every CMU academic unit and service area have united in support of athletes at the Special Olympics Michigan State Summer Games. Many of those volunteers come back every year. Here are a few of their stories.
Chris and Christie Surato, 23 years of service
From student volunteers to games committee leaders
Christie Surato was studying to be a special education teacher when she volunteered for her first games in 1996. The link between her major and the event made sense, and she had begun to love working with individuals with disabilities. Chris Surato, a chemistry major, had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to join a friend for a volunteer shift at the same 1996 games, but he'd heard rumors it was a good place to meet girls. He had no idea he was signing up for a commitment of a lifetime.
Although the two worked together at both summer and winter games annually, it wasn't until the winter games of 2001, a year after their graduation, that Chris worked up the nerve to ask Christie out. Six months later, they were engaged.
Together, Chris and Christie have volunteered in the Special Olympics summer and winter games for more than 23 years, serving on the games planning committee for 20. Christie wrote a grant that brought the Special Olympics fitness assessment program, Strive, to the Michigan games, and she now manages the Strive area during the winter games each year.
"There is always a moment, every year, that makes you cry or gives you goosebumps. There's always an athlete who inspires you to come back again," Christie said.
They have instilled their passion for the mission in their two daughters, Cadence, 13, and Grace, 11. The entire family works at the games each year, Christie and the two girls in the special events area while Chris is at the standing long jump.
"We started bringing Cadence to games when she was 3 months old. This year, as we were planning a trip to Disney, she insisted we move the date around so that we wouldn't miss the games. The girls have developed such a passion for people with disabilities. Working with these athletes has become a part of our family culture."
Volunteers play a huge role in building excitement for the athletes.
Steve Thompson, 42 years of service
Former faculty in physical education and sport and retired director of CMU Sexual Aggression Services
Steve Thompson, State Summer Games director, has worked with both summer and winter games in a leadership capacity for more than four decades. He's engaged students from his classes and from the Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates program to help and has worked with coaches and volunteers from around the state.
And each year, everyone works hard to make the games just a little better than they were before.
"As we go, so go the games. Our volunteers come back year after year because they care about the athletes and know they are a huge part of making the experience positive. They never sit back and think 'We've done enough, this is as good as it gets.' They are focused on constant improvement."
Thompson sticks around because he can see the immediate impact that his efforts have on the athletes and their families. He's received countless hugs and high-fives from athletes and parents over the years.
"How often do you really get to change someone's life? When you work with these athletes, you know you are making a huge difference to them. You get to spend three or four days having fun and really, truly making an impact."
Roger Coles, 43 years of service
Faculty emeritus, former chair of the recreation, parks and leisure services administration department
"We have come such a long, long way from 1972," Roger Coles said.
Coles remembers his first opening ceremony, where athletes had no uniforms, meals were delivered by a fast food restaurant and the games lacked options for older athletes. Many athletes had very little athletic skill because in the early years of the organization, coaches simply didn't know how to train people with different abilities, he said.
Now as the director for the standing long jump, Coles reflects on the many positive changes he's seen over the years. The summer games now feature 10 sports. Athletes train year-round with coaches and come to the event with skills that rival with their typically developing peers. The host facilities, like the Student Activity Center, are beautifully maintained and stocked with everything the games need, he said.
The one thing that remains the same is the sportsmanship and enthusiasm of the athletes.
Coles recalls seeing a front-runner in a swimming competition turn around to help a struggling competitor, giving up a first-place medal to help his friend; athletes holding hands so they could cross a finish line together; and endless high-fiving between winners and those who come in last place.
"These moments happen at Special Olympics all the time."
Many volunteers build lasting relationships with the athletes and their families.
Dean Wallin, 43 years of service
Director, Center for Leisure Services
"Every year, I catch the fever all over again," volunteer Dean Wallin said.
Wallin began volunteering with the summer games during the first on-campus games in the early 1970s. As a recreation major with a minor in physical education, volunteering with the games seemed a natural fit. He didn't know that he'd be hooked, staying involved with track and field events for more than four decades.
"Every year we get to relive all of the positive memories of the years prior, and every year we work hard to make the games just a little better than the last time."
Wallin said he has seen athletes waiting for their friends so they can cross the finish line together, helping other athletes up when they fall down and cheering for each other.
"Here you see sportsmanship that doesn't happen anywhere else. You can hear the athletes encouraging each other as they wait for their event to begin, giving each other pep talks. Every day, they inspire me to be sincere, to try my best and to show appreciation for others."
Jim Hornak, 46 years of service
Professor emeritus and former chair, physical education and sport department
Jim Hornak remembers the first Special Olympics Michigan bowling event he led in 1972.
"We used paper scorecards and overhead projectors to keep score. We had no quota for the number of athletes who could participate, so we were running games morning, noon and night to accommodate everyone who wanted to play."
Now, newer lanes with updated technology make his job a little easier, allowing him to spend more time focused on the athletes.
"Over time, you can see the benefits and opportunities these games provide to athletes. You get to be on a first-name basis with many of them, and you can watch their skills and confidence grow every year."
Hornak developed a deep passion for the mission of the games, even stepping up to serve on the Special Olympics Michigan board of directors. For many years, he and Roger Coles co-taught a class called Organization and Administration of the Special Olympics to help CMU students gain a better understanding of the athletes and their unique recreational needs.
Hornak has no intention to quit anytime soon.
"It's about the positivity of the people you meet: the volunteers who run the events, the athletes, the coaches, the families. You become good friends."