Dakota Lang, like many of his classmates at Live Oak High School, has volunteered to help with the Special Olympics Regional Competition for Livingston Parish since he was a freshman.
“I love it. I’m an only child, so I’d cheer on the athletes, and they’d hug on me and love on me. It was great. It really is like a big family,” he said. He keeps coming back every year because of that.
“I see the same athletes every year, and I’ve gotten to know their parents, too,” said Lang, who is now a senior.
This year, he turned in his paperwork to volunteer past the deadline, and when he realized he wouldn’t be able to help, he started “pestering my principal” every day until she finally agreed to put him on the list.
Though they have only 12 full time employees, Special Olympics of Louisiana has a far reach when it comes to the community of people living with special needs, said Charlie Courville, director of area management and outreach for the state organization.
Livingston Parish athletes participated in the parishwide regional games on April 24 at Live Oak High School, and got through most of the events on the football field despite a lingering threat of rain.
To Courville, who spent many years as president of an athletics association in Lafayette, the athletes make it fun with their positive attitudes, and it spreads to everyone who volunteers. He’s been a volunteer for the games since 1989, and when they offered him the job running state outreach, he couldn’t turn it down.
“It’s the pureness of the sport. When they compete, there’s a huge spirit of competition. They are giving it their all. The energy level is outstanding, from the athletes, the families, the volunteers. It’s a great atmosphere.”
And when the race is over, so is the competition. That’s one of the things senior Chandler LeGrange noticed.
“My athlete got a first-place and a third-place ribbon. She’s just as proud of the third place as she is of the first place,” LeGrange said.
It’s about doing one’s best, which drives other athletes to do their best, and that’s the pureness of sport to which Courville refers.
LeGrange said he didn’t know what to expect when signed up to be a buddy his freshman year. But since he’s participated the first year, he’s come to look forward to it.
He plays football, so a competitive spirit is something he can get behind. Plus, there’s never a grudge held afterward.
“I think it’s very important that these students at Live Oak have that connection,” he said, and he’s not talking about the athletes.
“I think everyone in high school should be required to participate in events like this one,” he said. “It makes you a better person. It does way more for me than it does for them, I think.”
Courville pointed out that attitudes about students with special needs have begun to change, because of inclusionary events like the games.
“They get to know the athletes outside of the academic setting,” he said, and that leads fewer instances of bullying and less social isolation for everyone.
Lang said he would intervene if he saw someone bullying anyone, especially a person with special needs, and that’s exactly the kind of spirit the Special Olympics spreads.
Special Olympics events are divided up by regions. The Florida Parishes region includes in Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes.
There will be an event for each parish, Courville said, and winners will advance from there, ultimately to the state games in Hammond.
“We used to have one big event (with all three parishes), but that got too big, and tended to discourage people from participating,” Courville said.
They broke the big Florida Parishes event into three individual games, and that got a lot more people involved, both in athlete sign-ups and in volunteers and the community.
The participation at Live Oak has always been exceptional, he said.
The games are part of a mission of inclusion of those with special needs into the community, Courville said. Separation leads to lack of understanding, and that leads to fewer opportunities for those with special needs, especially as students age out of the school system, when people with special needs tend to lose opportunities for stimulation and socialization, which is vital to every human.
“There is no age limit for Special Olympics participation,” Courville said.
The state summer games start on May 22 at Southeastern Louisiana University.