Special Olympics Michigan: Building a loyal army of helping hands, volunteers share their stories

Mary Roberts, left, hugs Shelby Township senior Zach Mackowiak then dances away during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Special Olympics Michigan Summer Games, Thurs. May 29. (Taryn Wattles | Staff Photographer)

Helping so many young athletes live their dreams of competing in a rigorous set of athletic games, it's hard to tell who benefits the most from the work of Special Olympics volunteers.

For those who tirelessly dedicate their time and energy to helping Special Olympics Michigan year round, like Mount Pleasant residents Barry and Sherry Trombley, it is equally fulfilling to interact with the unique athletes who travel to Michigan to compete in the games.

The Trombleys have worked as volunteers with SOMI for six years, and have learned much about themselves and helping others.

Sherry, a speech therapist, has had experience working with children with disabilities before attending her first games – an experience that has helped her be successful at interacting with the athletes. As soon as she started volunteering, she was hooked.

"Parents know their kids have limitations, but to see (their kids) climb on that podium and get a medal and be a star for a day, it brings tears to your eyes," Sherry said.

Globally, Special Olympics mobilizes an army of more than 500,000 volunteers year round.

Barry is a retired Michigan State Police Trooper, and has spent 27 years of his time within an institution of highly dedicated and focused individuals. Despite his hardnosed experience with the troopers, he said it was impossible not to be impressed by the determination of the athletes.

"Some of these kids are great athletes and very talented, but even those who aren't as talented will compete and they will finish no matter what because they are doing their best," Barry said. "If you watch these kids literally drag themselves across the finish line, you will never complain about a sore ankle or leg for the rest of your life.”

Aside from the summer games, the Trombleys participate in multiple Special Olympics events throughout the year. Their work with Special Olympics includes volunteering at the snowshoe races during the Winter Olympics games in Traverse City, as well as track and volleyball during the summer games.

As the Trombleys have devoted their time to the games, they’ve accumulated a host of inspirational stories, most of which have come from the track races. Together, the Trombleys have nearly an inexhaustible bank of treasured moments garnered from their volunteering.

Sherry said her favorite memory was watching a young girl in the swimming competition fight through the race after everyone else was finished.

"You would think she was winning the gold medal. The entire place was thundering with cheering" Sherry said. "She finished and pumped her fist and said, 'I didn't touch the bottom!’ That was her big deal, that she finished and never touched the bottom of the pool."

Most of all, Sherry said she enjoys the participants' spirit of camaraderie and the praise and acts of encouragement among the spectators and athletes constantly on display.

She describes the excitement among the athletes as infectious to all those who come in contact with them. Throughout the weekend, the athletes can be seen with their medals clanging around their necks, meanwhile clapping or using sign language to cheer on teammates and opponents.

Haslett senior Scott Thrun became involved in volunteer work after going to Special Olympics events his cousin with Asperger's syndrome participated in.

When Thrun came to CMU last year he started working the winter games and regional events, as well as the Unified Intramural league at CMU. This is his first time volunteering at the summer games.

"I’ve learned more from them than they have for me," Thrun said. "I think the main reason I do it is to show them they aren't alone, that they are part of society, to have them know that there are people out there who care about them."

When you walk in the door you can feel the energy that something is important happening, Thrun said. There isn’t a single frown in sight, whether or not the athletes come in first place.

"It's uplifting, it's an extremely positive place to be," he added.

There are two types of people who volunteer, those who are lukewarm and those who stay for life, Thrun said.

He is the latter, and would  love to stay involved even after his time at CMU is over.

"There’s really not much you can do to persuade people. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. It's really amazing,” Thrun said. “Everyone that I volunteer with they have keep coming back just try it once."

One of his favorite memories was made over the past two years of his volunteer work at the winter games.

In the first year Thrun met a boy who was from the same area and they got to talking and made a connection. As the year went on, he didn't have any contact with the boy. The next year, Thrun was working the same event and the boy recognized him immediately, embracing Thrun like an old friend.

"He came up to me screaming my name. That was really cool that he remembered me," he said. "The friendships you make there not only with the volunteers but the athletes really sticks with you."


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