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JMU student Maddie Stannard poses with members of the Special Olympics community. 

When Maddie Stannard spent her weekend at the Virginia Military Institute for a Special Olympics event, she had to endure some chirping. People often expect coaches and athletes to tolerate subtle jokes thrown their way from opposing fanbases, but for Stannard, these comments were coming from her own players.

With jokes being shared, Stannard sat confused as to why her players were giving her a hard time. Looking at them, she asked what it was for, and the response left the JMU senior with what she describes as the “craziest affirmation.”

“One of my athletes, J.B., was like, ‘Oh come on Maddie, you know we have to pick on you because we love you,’” Stannard said.

Love: a word Stannard often uses to describe the players she coaches, and a word that means everything to hear back from them.

“When I say I love them, I mean I love my athletes because they have just become such a big part of my life,” Stannard said. “Hearing them say that to me and telling me they love me is just incredible.”

The Special Olympics has become an integral part of not only Stannard’s life, but the lives of people across the country. In Virginia alone, the Special Olympics has a presence in over 500 schools and includes adults outside of the school system.

After getting involved with the program through her service fraternity — Alpha Phi Omega — Stannard says the feeling she has when she works with the Special Olympics is unlike anything she’s experienced at other organizations. Volunteering has always been important to Stannard, and during her time with the Special Olympics, the most rewarding part has been the friendships.

“When I say they are the most supportive people I have ever met, I mean they are the most supportive people I’ve ever met,” Stannard said. “They’ve loved me through good days and bad.”

Stannard has a hard time accepting how some individuals treat people with disabilities. To her, the athletes she’s worked with in the Special Olympics are some of the greatest people she’s encountered in her life.

To her, they’re no different from any other person.

“They are just as incredible of human beings as we are,” Stannard said. “My athletes are people; they are my best friends. They are caring and loving, and they have jobs and families and friends and relationships.”

Daniel Leake, the senior director for the Shenandoah region, has worked with the Special Olympics for over 19 years. He mainly works to coordinate programs so they run smoothly and has been there for a large chunk of the program’s growth in the Shenandoah Valley.

While he does say the Special Olympics hasn’t grown as much as he’d like it to, there’s still been progress. In his almost two decades of work, Leake says he’s seen the region become more integrated between members of the Special Olympics’ family and those who live in the Shenandoah Valley.

“We live [in] a unified community, and that’s where S­­pecial Olympics is going,” Leake said. “Our athletes, they work in the community. You’ll see them in the grocery store working or shopping. They go to church, they go to movies. Unified is what we really want to go to.”

Key areas of unification have been between the Special Olympics and the local schools. Leake has been a witness of that growth after seeing the program become more ingrained in the schools.

In Rockingham County, schools have created unified basketball teams that allow students with disabilities to participate and travel to play in games across the county. Now in its fourth year, the league consists of seven games per year with members of the band, cheerleaders and student sections all supporting the athletes.

This past year, Spotswood High School held a pep rally to honor its sports and how they’d performed throughout their respective seasons. At the end of the event, it was the unified team that ran onto the court and played a game with the entire student body cheering them on.

Chris Dodson, a special education teacher at Spotswood, still thinks about that day and how special it was. To him, it was crazy to see how one school came together to back all of its students. While the unified basketball games aren’t part of Special Olympics, Dodson credits the program for having an impact on it.

“Even though that is not Special Olympics, it’s cool because I think it’s maybe the effects of some Special Olympics leaking into the schools, which is very positive,” Dodson said.

Members of James Madison University’s marching band, The Marching Royal Dukes, have also gotten involved with fundraising for the Special Olympics. Before each school year, the group comes back together to participate in a band camp.

However, it’s not just a time to play music.

“The MRD’s have a fundraiser and try to raise money for the Special Olympics,” trumpet player Spencer Barras said. “Over the past few years, we’ve been able to give them a few thousand dollars each year.”

Whether it’s at schools or in the community, the Special Olympics has made an impact on its participants. Many of the athletes who compete for the organization live in group homes, and while they’re nice living facilities, the Special Olympics gives them an outlet.

Events put on by the Special Olympics are times where the athletes get to come together and socialize with their friends, new and old. There are laughs, smiles, conversations and stories throughout the day. It’s a time when people come together to form memories that many of the athletes cherish throughout their lives.

To the athletes and volunteers, it’s more than just a time to play sports. It’s not just a program for people with special needs.

For most participants, it’s everything.

“For some of our athletes, Special Olympics is the highlight of their life,” Leake said. “’Cause they just don’t have as many opportunities as you and I have.”

Contact Catie Harper at breezesports@gmail.com. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

Pat Summitt, Erin Andrews and Lindsay Czarniak were three names that inspired me growing up. Here I am now at JMU, Czarniak’s alma mater, taking steps to live out my dream. As Pat would say, “I’m going to keep on keepin’ on, I promise you that.”