Get to know four local Special Olympics volunteers who are making a difference in the lives of Seminole County’s most inspiring athletes
Year-round, the dedicated staff, volunteers, and athletes of Special Olympics Florida are hard at work training, coaching, competing, fundraising, facilitating, learning, leading, and loving every minute of it. Founded in 1972, the nonprofit organization is an accredited program of the worldwide Special Olympics, Inc. and is one of the largest volunteer-driven athletic organizations in the state.
The Seminole County division of the Special Olympics supports nearly 1,000 athletes of all ages and offers a variety of opportunities in sports such as tennis, cheerleading, swimming, bowling, and gymnastics. Special Olympics, however, is about much more than playing sports. It’s about providing opportunity for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to demonstrate and grow their skills and talents. It’s about fostering teamwork and lifelong friendships and creating a more inclusive, welcoming, and accepting society. It’s about increasing the public’s awareness of each Special Olympics athlete’s capabilities.
“Each athlete’s smile, each volunteer’s enthusiasm, and my coworkers’ hard work and dedication have enriched my life in more ways than I can describe,” says Victoria Johnson, director of Special Olympics Florida - Seminole County. “I have been blessed to work with the most amazing people I have ever met and probably will ever meet. This job has changed my life.”
These four stellar Special Olympics volunteers from our community each echo Victoria’s sentiment. Here they share how their lives have been touched and transformed in immeasurable ways.
Oviedo resident Kevin Lienard got involved with Special Olympics when his son Scott, now 24, joined the program nine years ago. Kevin coaches basketball, swimming, and softball and recently took on the role as the organization’s community and corporate relations chair to promote the program to different area schools and recruit athletes.
“My goal is to reach individuals who can’t participate in mainstream sports and help give them an outlet,” Kevin says. “With Special Olympics, you can never age out, and I love to see that I have players that are age 12 and players in their 50s. For many of our athletes who are no longer in school or who may have a job, coming to practice is the highlight of their week. It’s their time to socialize and exercise. Being a part of their week and being able to facilitate them is a really neat thing to be around and be a part of. It’s a joy to be around these athletes, and the energy they have is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
Kevin’s love of coaching and mentoring athletes led him to retire from his 25-year career as an attorney and pursue a career in teaching. He is also instrumental in helping his son Scott pursue his love of sports broadcasting. Scott announces the action at Oviedo High and Seminole State College softball games and at other sporting events.
“Kevin is invaluable, not only as a coach and management team member, but as a constant advocate of our program and athletes,” says Victoria. “His caring and compassionate approach always yields excellent results, and his athletes love him.”
When Phil Deal’s son Zach joined Special Olympics in 2008, Phil quickly realized his own natural talent as a coach after attending practices with his son. His involvement grew into his role as an assistant coach and eventually head coach for track and field events in 2017. Today, Phil coaches more than 20 athletes alongside a team of assistant coaches and also coaches basketball during the fall season. His son Zach, now 25, is engaged in sports for most of the year and especially enjoys swimming.
Most weekends, Phil is either at practice or attending competitions, ensuring his athletes are performing at their best. He keeps a Special Olympics bible, of sorts, which outlines each athlete’s needs. Phil is diligent about the administrative aspects of his role, too, like recording and reporting each athlete’s stats and tracking their progress.
“Seeing the pride athletes have while learning and improving in their athletic skills – and seeing their eventual success and achievements – inspires me to be the best coach I can be for them,” says Phil. “Their smiles say it all when they reach a goal or they are just having fun with everyone at practice or competition. Our team has become an extended family as we care about each other, and we all work to make the experience the best it can be for our athletes, volunteers, and families.”
“Phil’s ability to connect and teach our athletes is unique, and his kind, gentle, and organized nature makes him a great leader in our program,” says Victoria. “He is always willing to lend a hand or provide advice outside of sports, and this is beyond appreciated.”
Altamonte Springs resident Ann Nieves joined Special Olympics as a volunteer in 2009 when her then-eight-year-old daughter Annamarie, who has Down syndrome, became an athlete. Annamarie, now 19, has made incredible strides in the program. Last year, she earned multiple medals in rhythmic gymnastics at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. She continues to be actively involved and participates in tennis, swimming, surfing, and paddleboarding.
It has been a joy to see her daughter thrive over the years, says Ann, who coaches Annamarie and other athletes in rhythmic gymnastics, cheerleading, swimming, and surfing. Ann devotes most weekends to coaching and cheering them on.
“Being a coach and being with all the athletes brightens up my week,” says Ann. “I look forward to seeing the kids and all their different personalities, and they’re always so excited to see me. It’s very rewarding. Special Olympics is a very big part of our lives and has provided great opportunities for my daughter and myself to give back to the community. Without volunteers, we couldn’t make it happen. ”
“Anyone who has met Ann knows how much she loves each of her athletes and how she shows such kindness, compassion, and patience, adapting to each athlete’s needs,” says Victoria. “She is always willing to lend a hand even when it’s not sports-related, and she is also part of our fundraising committee.”
Longwood resident Lynn Mendez began volunteering with Special Olympics events years ago. After retirement, she decided to dig in by taking on the role of fundraising chair for Seminole County’s program. Though Lynn was new to the world of fundraising, she faced the challenge head-on. Five years later, Lynn and her devoted fundraising committee are responsible for hosting three major events a year including two designer-bag bingos and an annual golf tournament. She also coordinates community engagement events and works on finding sponsors and donors.
“It brings me such tremendous joy to see our athletes participate and excel in their sports – their excitement is contagious,” says Lynn. “It’s not only the sports training and competition, but the human element of socialization, camaraderie, and support for each other is wonderful to watch! Plus, it’s rewarding to see how my role in putting on fundraising events directly contributes to these efforts in the county. It’s just the best. It’s been a nice way to retire, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like retirement!”
“Lynn is an incredible member of our Special Olympics Florida - Seminole County family,” says Victoria. “She helps raise vital funds needed to help sustain our program. Not only does she dedicate countless hours to fundraising, but she also volunteers at our sports competitions and community awareness events.”
“What I love about Special Olympics is that our athletes do not age out of the program,” says Lynn. “You can be an athlete for life. It’s really very humbling to be part of this organization. It’s a lot of fun and has allowed me to do things I’ve never done before.”
For more information about Special Olympics in Seminole County or to become an athlete, volunteer, or coach, contact Victoria Johnson at 407-242-2938 or VictoriaJohnson@SOFL.org. Or, visit SpecialOlympicsSeminole.org.
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