Athletes, volunteers ‘set sail’ at Special Olympics

Caroline Goldstein

Villanova hosted the 21st annual Special Olympics Fall Festival last weekend. The Fall Festival is one of the premier Special Olympics events in Pennsylvania with over 3,000 volunteers and 1,000 athletes participating.

Special Olympics is an opportunity for people with special needs to compete in various sporting events. The events included soccer, volleyball, long distance running, roller-skating, power lifting and bocce.

This year’s theme was “Set Sail.” Many of the events and Olympic Town showed the nautical theme throughout the weekend.

“The Villanova Special Olympics also happens to be the largest student-run Special Olympics in the country,” Jeff Baxter, associate competition director for Eastern Pennsylvania said.

“Every aspect of the University participates in this event somehow.”

The events began on Friday afternoon when the delegations from various counties throughout Pennsylvania arrived.

One delegation was Team PA, which will represent Pennsylvania in the national games next year in Nebraska.

There were several additions to this year’s competitions. One of the most notable, according to senior Festival Director Allison Kahl, was the addition of a seven-on-seven soccer competition. In the past, only five-on-five and ten-on-ten were available.

Other additions this year included an awareness committee and an athlete representative.

The athlete representative this year, Samantha Weitz, is from Delaware County. The new addition “gives us the athlete’s perspective,” Kahl said.

Fundraising for the event included the Strides 5K Run, Peace A Pizza nights, where 20 percent of each purchase goes towards Fall Festival, and the sale of Jay Wright mugs, which was a new idea this year.

Several of the events occurred off campus. Bocce competitions and seven-verses-seven soccer were held at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, and the roller-skating took place at the International Sports Centre in Mount Laurel, N.J. Olympic Town, which is set up in the Quad, includes various activities such as arts and crafts and karaoke.

With over 3,000 volunteers this year, all of the events on and off-campus were well-staffed.

“We have rarely had a hard time getting volunteers,” said Lori Blake, the Committee Advisor.

There were so many volunteers this year that the Fall Festival Committee ran out of volunteer T-shirts on Saturday.

“It’s a good thing because the goal is to get as many people involved and aware of the movement as possible,” said Jared Streppa, director of Human Resources for Fall Festival.

“It’s really impressive seeing all of the athletes doing the different sports,” said Jacqui Valente, a local program host.

The local program host position is a freshmen-only volunteer opportunity that pairs two to three LPHs with a county for the entire weekend.

The hosts serve as the county’s “personal connection to the university,” according to Michaela Gaziano, a local program host for Bedford County.

Gaziano’s county consisted of several returning athletes. One of these athletes, Christa Mereen, has been participating in Special Olympics for eight years and has been to Fall Festival in recent years. Mereen is also a global messenger, which means that she speaks to athletes at other Special Olympics competitions. The camaraderie with fellow athletes is one of Mereen’s favorite parts of Fall Festival.

“I love my teammates,” Mereen said. “We’re like family.”

For some, like Marlena Riley, the cheers were one of the best parts. Riley noted liking the Boogaloo cheer the best. Mereen’s father, Tom, was the bocce coach for Bedford County, and her mother, Marty, was the head of the delegation.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Mr. Mereen said. “The most important thing is to teach them [the athletes] how to compete.”

“We all grow from every trip. It’s a really great life experience.”

Several of the first-time athletes discovered this as well.

This was Tammy and Ross Kimmel’s first Fall Festival and both plan on coming back again next year.

“I’m meeting a lot of new people,” Ross said.

The husband and wife teamed up for the bocce competitions.

“They’re a very good team,” said Marty. “They bring out the best in each other.”

The weekend concluded with the closing ceremonies and the extinguishing of the torch. The goal of Special Olympics is to dissemble misconceptions people have about disabilities, according to Kahl.

“It’s not just a weekend,” Kahl said.