By Amelia Kibbe
More than 250 elementary, middle and high school athletes and nearly 100 volunteers will fill the Reilly Center and Sandra A. and William L. Richter Center today for four rounds of competitive play as part the annual Special Olympics Unified Basketball Competition.
Before the games get underway, a torch run from downtown Olean into the RC arena is kicking off Opening Ceremonies for the 16 teams from area schools, said Paula Scraba, who heads the organization of the event for St. Bonaventure.
The Trooper Ross M. Riley leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run—held in memory of Allegany-area New York State Trooper Riley—begins nearly three miles from the academic side of campus in Olean’s Lincoln Park, located next to the intersection of West State and North Union streets. Along with community members and law enforcement officers, members of the men’s and women’s track team and the university’s ROTC are joining in the run.
“The event is growing each year,” said Scraba. “It’s turned into a community event with people of all ages.”
Teams from Olean, Portville, Allegany-Limestone and Franklinville will spend today playing running-clock games before winners are announced in the afternoon awards as part of the closing ceremonies. Campus organizations, including the Knights of Columbus and ENACTUS, provided lunches for the volunteers, and Portville Central School provided lunches for all the athletes and coaches, Scraba said.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Scraba said of unified sports. “And out of those relationships, [athletes and mentors] look at each other in a positive way.”
She explained that traditional Special Olympics consists of competition among athletes with disabilities broken into groups with similar skills sets, while unified sports—also part of Special Olympics—consists of a mix of athletes with and without disabilities who may be at varying skill levels. Recently, the organization has seen an increase in unified play, Scraba added.
The closing ceremonies also recognize 1973 St. Bonaventure graduate Neal Johnson, the CEO of Special Olympics New York, who plans to retire.
Scraba, who first began working with Special Olympics programs in 1975, teaches students in her senior forum class to assist in coaching athletes and planning the event each spring.
Beginning in January, her students break into teams to organize various elements of the day-long event. Then, as the April event draws closer, they coach teams from Allegany-Limestone elementary, middle and high school.
“Prior to meeting the student-athletes, we did a colossal amount of preparation, which included developing drills and creating the schedule so [today] can run as smoothly as possible,” said Travis Barber, a senior in Scraba’s class. “After working with [the athletes], I have developed stronger bonds with them and learned to appreciate the unique skills they possess.”
The tradition of university students working with the athletes, which began about five years ago, gives students a chance to put into practice the Franciscan values they have learned in the classrooms over the years, Scraba said.
“We would not be able to do this without the students,” she said. “They are willing to go above and beyond…the collaboration and cooperation across campus—there’s no way I could do without them…It’s a great community builder.”