|Knights organized a regional Special Olympics event near Halifax, Nova Scotia, May 26. Approximately two-thirds of the councils in Nova Scotia participate in Special Olympics in some way. (Photo by Halley Davies)
Nearly 3,000 cheering athletes, in addition to their coaches, families and friends, packed into Central Michigan University’s McGuirk Arena on May 30, pushing it to standing-room-only capacity. It was loud. It was hot. It was the opening ceremony of Special Olympics Michigan’s 2013 State Summer Games.
Fourth Degree Knight Willy Winkle, 23, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with more than two dozen of his brother Knights from across the state, serving as an honor guard for the festivities. With swords raised, they joined local college athletes and state law enforcement officials to form a human tunnel for Special Olympics athletes and representatives entering the joy-filled arena.
During the next two days, Winkle would continue to offer his support as one of nearly 2,500 volunteers on hand for the summer games — one of numerous Special Olympics events that take place annually throughout North America, thanks in part to financial and volunteer support from the Knights of Columbus.
“I’m going to tell them that they are doing a good job and to keep it up,” Winkle said.
He knows the right words of encouragement to offer because he, too, is a Special Olympics athlete. He participates in poly hockey and cross-country skiing each year during the winter games. And he is cheered on by his father, Walter Winkle Jr., a fellow member of Richmond (Mich.) Council 2667 who serves as the state chairman for Special Olympics.
“I love that he wanted to be a part of the Fourth Degree and wanted to be a part of the color corps,” said Walter of his son. “He really enjoys it — and the guys just love having him along with them. They look out for him.”
Such faith-inspired charity and emphasis on human dignity has made the Knights a natural and leading partner of Special Olympics, which serves more than a half million children and adults with intellectual disabilities each year through athletic training and competition.
The Knights of Columbus has partnered with Special Olympics since the first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968. In 2005, the Order’s board of directors committed $1 million ($250,000 annually) to grow Special Olympics programs in North America and pledged more volunteers for state and local games. Additionally, the Supreme Council promised to work with Special Olympics North America to expand programs in other countries. The $1 million commitment was renewed in 2009 and again in 2013.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009), founder of Special Olympics, once stated, “I don’t think there’s any organization in the country that has given so much in personal help and in financial support to Special Olympics.” Indeed, the Order’s enduring commitment has been a vital lifeline for Special Olympics, especially in places where the organization has struggled to grow.
“At a time when Special Olympics Iowa was on the very edge of ceasing to exist, due to lack of funds, the Iowa Knights stepped up and pledged $35,000 every year for five years,” said Michael Laake, who serves as the Knights of Columbus representative to the Special Olympics Iowa Board of Directors.
Laake, a member of Estherville (Iowa) Council 2021, added that the Knights’ support has been a worthy investment in the future of the athletes served through Special Olympics.
“Special Olympics gives a person opportunities that they may never get anywhere else in their lives,” Laake said. “The opportunity to try, to succeed, to show the world they can and do have the same wants, needs and dedication that we all have.”
Still, the bond between the Knights of Columbus and Special Olympics runs much deeper than dollars. Knights often take an active role in organizing and volunteering at Special Olympics games throughout North America.
According to Sean Kelly, who serves as Special Olympics chairman for the Knights in Nova Scotia, volunteer participation has increased in recent years; more than 65 percent of councils in the province now participate in Special Olympics in some way. In all, the 4,700-member jurisdiction donates more than 5,000 volunteer hours and approximately $27,000 to Special Olympics each year.
“As our level of commitment has grown, I’ve noticed a growing camaraderie between our members and athletes,” Kelly said. “With high fives, hugs and just casual conversations, many athletes know our members by name.”
In late May, Nova Scotia Knights took the lead in organizing a regional Special Olympics event in Lower Sackville in anticipation of the provincial summer games July 12-14.
“We’ve found that what we bring to the table in many instances is the ability to put on events that Special Olympics has always wanted to do but never had the manpower or resources to accomplish,” explained Kelly. “From the beginning, we didn’t want councils simply to write a check, but to get involved at the grassroots level.”
Kelly said that he became involved with Special Olympics 23 years ago when his council began assisting with regional games. More than anything, he was affected by the athletes’ cheerfulness, caring attitude and positive outlook.
“Personally, it’s been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done as a Knight,” Kelly said, noting that many other Knights feel the same way.
Tom Marcetti Sr., immediate past state deputy of Michigan and state chairman for the fund drive for people with intellectual disabilities, has volunteered with Special Olympics for the past 12 years.
“None of these special athletes are going to make millions by shooting a ball,” Marcetti said. “But when you see the joy on their faces, you see the face of God. Once you seen that, you are hooked. You will come back again and again.”
It soon becomes clear to volunteers and athletes that Special Olympics offers participants more than just athletic competition. Through Project UNIFY®, for example, the organization uses education and sports to foster friendships and respect in school communities.
Special Olympics Michigan also partners with specially trained professionals to discuss with participants the importance of good dental health and conduct on-site eye exams.
“Studies show that more than 70 percent of persons with disabilities have the wrong prescription,” explained Jim Taylor, development director for Special Olympics Michigan and a member of Bishop Kevin Britt Council 8117 in Grand Rapids. “Our Opening Eyes program is working to solve that. Everyone here will walk away with a new pair of eyeglasses if they need them.”
One week before the summer games, Walter Winkle Jr. had the honor of presenting a $10,000 check to Special Olympics Michigan on behalf of the Supreme Council at the Knights’ annual state convention. During the opening ceremony May 30, State Deputy Michael J. Malinowski presented another $10,000 gift, this time from the state council.
“Local support is so important for so many reasons,” said Walter Winkle. “Our local councils may not be directly supporting each of the things happening here, like the eye exams, but they are making it possible for these athletes to get here to take advantage of all these important opportunities.”
The Knights’ annual fund drive for people with intellectual disabilities — sometimes known as the “Tootsie Roll Drive” — remains the Order’s hallmark staple of community awareness. To date, K of C units have raised well more than $500 million for programs that benefit people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Yet, that doesn’t keep individual Knights and their councils from finding creative new ways to rally support.
In Iowa, Laake will rappel over the edge of a 345-foot financial center building in downtown Des Moines this coming September as part of a fundraiser for Special Olympics. He said he was inspired to participate by seeing the example of Special Olympics athletes.
“They might not be able to win, but they have the courage to try,” he said. “It is that chance to be brave in the attempt, win or not, that makes the difference in their lives. If I can raise $1,000 for this cause, maybe another athlete or two will get that chance.”
Meanwhile, Polar Bear plunges — people leaping through holes cut into frozen lakes in the middle of winter — have become a popular extreme fundraiser in Michigan. Jim Dennis, a corrections officer and member of Saints Cyril & Methodius Council 13449 in Bannister, Mich., began organizing a charity polar plunge five years ago. He was invited to run one of the final legs of the Special Olympic Torch Relay during this year’s opening ceremony, in part because of the success of the annual event.
“Sure, this has been a wonderful honor,” Dennis said as he smiled from ear to ear, taking in the scene of the packed arena. “But I don’t do this for the honor. I don’t do this to raise more money than someone else. I do this because of where I am each and every Sunday. This is what my faith calls me to do.”
MATT TREADWELL serves as a church communications specialist in East Lansing, Mich. He was the founding editor of FAITH Saginaw magazine in the Diocese of Saginaw.