Nurturing Community – Special Olympics

As printed in the Inter-County Leader on September 20, 2023.


The mission of Special Olympics Wisconsin is to provide year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with cognitive disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.


Special Olympics is a unique program offering more than just sports. Every one of these athletes has been in a school where they are bench-sitters instead of being active participants. Through Special Olympics they can engage in a number of sports year-round, make lifelong friends, boost their self-esteem, and feel proud in their accomplishments. They have the opportunity to travel not only to state competitions, but also to USA Games, Special National Games and International Games. Participants are also encouraged to take part in the Healthy Athletes programs available at State Games such as Special Smiles, Fit Feet, Opening Eyes, and the SOfit Program.


Polk County Special Olympics started up in 1980 and has been growing ever since. We serve anyone who has been diagnosed with an intellectual disability or closely related developmental disability and has functional limitations in general learning and adaptive skills such as

recreation, work, independent living, self-direction or self-care. The minimum age to join is eight years old and there is no end age, so athletes can participate until they decide they are too old. We have approximately 100 athletes in our program, with more than half actively involved. We provide sports year-round and athletes can choose which sports interest them from what we offer.


Our local program is totally run by non-paid volunteers who have to complete on-line training and pass criminal background checks to serve on management teams, coaches, or chaperones who travel with the athletes to our events. We need one chaperone and coach for every three or four athletes when we go to any competitions. Ninety percent of our competitions are in other areas throughout the state so we have to travel. Currently, our local school districts have graciously volunteered transportation for us on a rotating schedule. When we travel more than three hours to competitions we stay in hotels, due to the start times of most events. We also provide meals for our athletes and chaperones when traveling. Another big expense for us is uniforms; all sports have to have uniforms and as they get worn out or outdated, we need to replace them. We also own the equipment that is needed for each sport. So, volunteers are very important, and without them and funding, Polk County Special Olympics could not exist.


We know that this program is successful by the smiles on our athletes’ faces, their dedication to coming back each year, and the volunteers who join us. One of our nonverbal athletes, when arriving at the first bocce practice of the season was so excited that he was rocking the van he was sitting in when he saw his friends and coaches. We have also had numerous athletes chosen to attend large competitions in New Jersey, Seattle, Atlanta, China and other locations, and they are still talking about their experience years later.


Special Olympics local needs include fundraising; finding more volunteers to become coaches or take a role on our management team; and getting the word out to new athletes to join us. Our biggest challenge is the lack of new volunteers and athletes. Some of our volunteers have reached an age where they can no longer participate, leaving us short on chaperones. Our

biggest accomplishment is watching these athletes grow mentally, physically and emotionally. In a community where it is difficult for people with disabilities to go out and have a social connection, Special Olympics allows them to get together with their peers and make more memories together.


“Our plans for the future are to continue to grow our program without limiting the number of athletes we can serve,” noted Leanne Richter, Local Program Manager. “We would like the community to know that their support is very important to our program, which is about changing the athletes’ lives while offering the parents and caregivers an avenue to share experiences, knowledge, frustrations, advice on other programs they can reach out to, and just to be able to navigate with having a disabled child of any age.”


For more information about Wisconsin Special Olympics, go to Locally, contact Polk/Burnett County Special Olympics at, or by phone at 715-491-4862.


The Northwest Alliance Community Foundation is an affiliate of the St. Croix Valley Foundation. We support our area nonprofits with educational opportunities and grants. Please consider joining us by making a donation. See our website for more information or email