Mom's push earns special people recognition

The mother of a Down's syndrome student wanted him and other Special Olympians to receive letters.

Published May 13, 2007

TAMPA - Every few months, Val McDarby picked up the phone and called someone in Hillsborough schools about the varsity letter.

Her son, Chris, was an athlete at Durant High School. His sports included swimming, basketball, tennis and golf. He pushed himself hard, just like his four older siblings, who were able to earn varsity athletic letters in high school.

But Chris wouldn't have the chance because his matches took place at the Special Olympics.

His mother thought Chris, and students like him, deserved the honor of a letter. For five years, she pitched the idea to school officials. Everyone liked it. No one made it happen.

She persisted even after it no longer mattered for Chris. He graduated in 2005 after receiving a school letter for academics.

"Because I'm a mom, " she says. "I cared about all those children who didn't get an award."

Monday night, McDarby and her family will attend a ceremony for nearly 100 high school athletes who participated in the Special Olympics this year. She'll finally get to see someone earn that varsity letter.

- - -

Special Olympics are played year-round in the McDarby household. Chris' favorite sport is basketball. His second-favorite is golf, which his parents coach.

McDarby, 63, and her husband, Bob, 66, are certified coaches for the Special Olympics, a competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Hillsborough County's almost 700 participants include high-functioning athletes with Down's syndrome, like 20-year-old Chris, and those who also are physically disabled.

McDarby's varsity letter campaign started at a state event where she heard about a school district in North Florida that offered the recognition.

She initially suggested it for Durant High in east Hillsborough, where Chris received trophies for his athletic performance. The principal liked the idea, but told McDarby to talk to the school district athletics department.

Over five years, she spoke to a long list of district officials. "Everyone said, 'Yes, yes, yes, ' " McDarby recalls. "But no one said, 'Let's do it.' "

- - -

When Wynne Tye became general director for exceptional student education last summer, she found the letter proposal among some unfinished projects.

She wanted it done.

"I didn't want to waste another year, " Tye says. "I have seniors right now graduating that have participated in this program for years."

Tye, 49, has supported the Special Olympics as an educator and as the mother of a participant. She pushed the issue onto the School Board agenda.

The discussion is changing the way Hillsborough looks at its traditional athletic program.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb was struck by Special Olympics' emphasis on sportsmanship. She suggested adding it to the varsity letter requirements for all athletes. A policy is being prepared for next school year.

"They need to have high character in order to receive a letter also, " says Lanness Robinson, 35, director of athletics, giving as examples good sportsmanship and not getting ejected from games.

McDarby, who was in the audience, says she can't stop smiling at the thought of others learning from the Special Olympics.

"That's well beyond what I imagined, " she says.

She's not interested in taking credit. She says a friend, Karen Dearolf, helped her to reach Tye.

Dearolf, 59, laughs that off. She makes sure the newspaper knows what McDarby didn't say - that her entire family was honored in 2003 by former President George Bush's Points of Light Foundation for their work with the Special Olympics.

Chris will sit with his mother when the first group of Special Olympics athletes get their letters Monday night. He didn't earn a letter for his athletics, but the blue "D" that he received for academics decorates his otherwise bare bulletin board.

He's proud of her, too. "My Mom's too awesome, " he says.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.