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'A chance to shine'

Not just competition, the events help Special Olympians grow as people.

[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Under the watchful eye of coach Acie Jenkins, Sawyer Allred practices tossing the shot put. Sawyer is among 27 students who will compete for Walker Middle School in the Special Olympics.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

ODESSA -- Sixth-grader Mike Vinas didn't want to touch the shot put.

Ever since he was shocked while touching a door knob, Mike has been afraid of metal, said Walker Middle School coach Acie Jenkins. But as he oversaw training Monday for the upcoming Special Olympics competition at the University of South Florida, Jenkins wanted the emotionally disabled 11-year-old to practice with the other students at the tossing platform.

"You want to do it," he said, pleading with Mike. "You did it before."

Jenkins' smile and persistence came up short this time, as the only object Mike threw during training was a tennis ball. But the overall atmosphere was supportive, as teachers and student volunteers prepared the children for the upcoming event.

This year's Special Olympics is generating even more excitement than last year's, when Walker fielded its first team ever. Fighting apathy and a late start, Jenkins put together a team of three, all of them autistic students who participated in a variety of running and throwing events.

He heads into Tuesday's competition with a team of 27 students, bolstered by the addition of 22 kids from Walker's educably mentally handicapped class.

Not a sporting event in the usual sense of the word, the Special Olympics gives disabled children a moment in the spotlight while teaching them about discipline.

The children's conditions run the gamut of physical and mental disabilities, including mental retardation, autism and emotional difficulties. Walker, under the lead of departing principal Kathy Flanagan, has tried mainstream these students as much as possible.

"They don't have a lot of success in the academic realm," said Patti Wiltshire, who directs the educable mentally handicapped program. But when it comes to Special Olympics, she said, "This gives them a chance to shine."

The program would not have gotten off the ground without Jenkins, a smiling force who hopes his master's thesis at USF can form the basis of a new physical education curriculum for disabled children.

No matter how they perform, Jenkins finds an encouraging word. But he pushes the children too. "They absolutely love him," Wiltshire said.

Jenkins' work earned him Walker's nomination this year for the Ida S. Baker Distinguished Minority Educator award.

He hopes to take his best teams to the statewide Special Olympics in Tallahassee.

Daniel Peynado, an autistic sixth-grader, practiced his tennis ball toss at the track Monday. Jenkins has coached him on how to stand. Daniel, 14, thrust his left arm and left foot out for balance.

"Big throw, big throw!" he told the youngster. "Whoa! That was good, man." But he adds, "I've seen better."

-- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314.

Special Olympics at a glance

According to a recent Gallup poll, 96% of respondents believe that persons with mental retardation benefit from Special Olympics.

Special Olympics enhances social competence and adaptive skills, building positive self-perception and improved work performance, while encouraging independence and offering real physical benefits, according to a Yale University study.

Special Olympics was named the Most Credible Charity in America according to a survey in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Special Olympics was recognized by 98.5% of respondents in a recent Gallup poll.

A Procter & Gamble study rated Special Olympics first among their consumers when compared to other national and international charities.

A Gallup poll found that consumers were significantly more likely to purchase products associated with Special Olympics when compared with other major sporting events.

Special Olympics 56%

The Olympics 38%

World Cup 25%

Super Bowl 23%

Special Olympics Florida currently operates year-round programs in 57 of Florida's 67 counties. There are over 250 training sessions and competitions offered annually for athletes, coaches, and volunteers.

Special Olympics Florida serves 15,000 athletes and offers competition in 21 different team and individual sports. These athletes are trained by 4,000 volunteer coaches, and are supported and encouraged by more than 25,000 event volunteers statewide. At the grassroots level, SOFL has over 900 local, registered training programs within 11 geographic service areas.

-- Source: Special Olympics Florida

License Plate

Florida Special Olympics

Date enacted January 1, 1994

Fee $15 annual fee (plus registration fees)

Cumulative plates issued 21,118

Amount generated in 2001 $112,110.00

-- Source: State of Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

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