Special Olympics Day
NORTH BRANCH — The gymnasium of North Branch Elementary was host to a March Madness Special Olympics event featuring students, volunteers and parents hailing from across Lapeer County on Thursday. Nearly 170 student-athletes from several area schools participated in a trio of skill-testing, basketball-themed events — basket shooting, dribbling and precision passing. The athletes spent several days practicing in preparation for the event.
This year’s Special Olympics event is the seventh such event in North Branch. “My dream is that this is their March Madness,” said parent volunteer Cheryl Bartel. Bartel works as a social worker at the Lapeer County Community Mental Health facility in Mayfield Township, but she said for the event, she’s just a proud parent. Bartel’s daughter Mary was diagnosed with medical issues requiring shunts surgically implanted in her body that prevented her from participating in athletic events through traditional avenues, but since then has devoted herself to promoting and taking part in the Special Olympics, which led to her being honored as 2014’s Special Olympics Michigan Inspirational Athlete of the Year.
A devoted supporter of local Special Olympics events, Mary raises chickens and donated all the proceeds from egg sales to special education. Her mother Cheryl credits Mary with being the driving force behind the event’s inception.
“She wanted to bring the event to North Branch,” Bartel said. “She woke up from surgery and said ‘I want to do this in North Branch.’”
Tammy Siegler, the organizer for the March Madness event, also said Mary deserves kudos for kicking off the event seven years ago. “That’s where it all started, with Mary,” said Siegler. “It’s just blossomed from there. We get a few more athletes every year, and the exciting part is not only how excited the athletes are, but the impact it has on the volunteers.”
In addition to the North Branch basketball competitions, athletes participate in several other events across the region, including bowling, track and field, cycling and an annual Winter Games in Traverse City. North Branch Elementary School principal Greg Matheson was on hand to take in the event and said that it is the duty of any community to support every member of that community.
“We’re better off for it,” said Matheson. “We owe it to these kids to expose them to as much of the general education programs as possible. These kids are exceptional, and events like this just serve to highlight their strengths.”
Siegler echoed Matheson’s view, saying that the March Madness activities are a “big event” for the athletes. “They look so forward to the little things in life like being able to go to a competition,” Siegler said. “I was so proud of how they cheered each other on and how our volunteers encouraged them.”
“We’re very proud of (the event), said Bartel. “Every school has their own volunteers and we couldn’t do it without them.” Thursday’s event drew athletes from several Lapeer County schools, including Lapeer County Intermediate School District, North Branch, Almont and Ed-Tech, as well as student volunteers of all ages.
“It’s rewarding to experience helping and making a difference,” said one volunteer, Brayden Vauter, an eighth-grade student at North Branch Middle School. Vauter was tasked to keep track of the athletes’ performances and award ribbons. More than 30 student volunteers donated their time and energy to facilitate the activities, either acting as coaches, judges or simply offering their support. “For the volunteers, it’s life changing,” said Siegler. “For them to see what they have — the ability to wait on themselves and get up and get dressed themselves, they realize how lucky they are.”
The volunteers often express their gratitude to Siegler and other event organizers for the opportunity to participate in the events. “For those volunteers to be able to serve the community, they see how important it is to the Special Olympics and the athletes.”
In addition to the volunteers, dozens of sponsors show their support of the event as well, donating funds that are used to provide each participant with a water bottle, a T-shirt and snacks. “We have to rotate sponsors because so many want to help out,” said Siegler. “Every year I have so many calls, people asking, ‘How can I help?’”