Rachel Parsons has spanned the sporting universe in her 25 years as a Special Olympics Oregon athlete.
Softball and soccer. Track and field and swimming. Bowling and bocce ball.
For Parsons, a 38-year-old Portland resident, the lifelong draw is more than just the thrill of a game or a shot at a gold medal.
“A lot of us have a hard time finding where we fit in the world,” she said. “This gives us a way to be a part of something.”
Since 1972, Special Olympics Oregon has offered year-round sports training, competition and camaraderie to those with intellectual disabilities. It is a beneficiary of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2020 Season of Sharing holiday fundraising campaign.
>>To donate: Season of Sharing GoFundMe page
The organization, which is accredited by the international Special Olympics Inc., offers programs in all 36 Oregon counties that are free to participants and their families.
Its $3.1 million operating budget comes through donations, grants, corporate partnerships, special events and grassroots fundraising initiatives.
Athletes can begin competing at the age of 8. Some are in their 80s. The aim is to promote fitness, social skills and self-esteem.
In a typical year as many as 10,000 people will participate. Just as many volunteer.
“The spirit is very contagious and just draws people in,” said Britt Carlson Oase, chief executive officer of Special Olympics Oregon. “Ultimately, it makes for stronger communities.”
Not long ago the nonprofit found itself in turmoil. Debts began to mount, topping $2 million in 2017. The financial crisis forced Special Olympics Oregon to cancel its premiere annual event, the Summer Games, which has yet to return.
Meanwhile, Oase, who joined the nonprofit in 2018, took other dramatic steps to cut costs. She reduced the staff, which is now 11 paid employees. The organization moved out of its swanky downtown office and squeezed into a smaller, donated space in the suburbs.
Special Olympics Oregon had begun to turn the corner by earlier this year.
There were late March basketball tournaments scheduled around the state. There was a power-lifting competition featuring more than 100 athletes planned for McArthur Court in Eugene.
Then coronavirus struck. A new round of cancellations followed.
“It was completely devastating,” Oase said. “Especially after all we’d been through the last few years.”
There was also a growing concern for the athletes, many of whom have few opportunities to connect with others.
“Social isolation in normal times is prevalent among the intellectually disabled community,” she said. “Many of our athletes depend on us.”
So Special Olympics Oregon pivoted, creating a host of online programs centered on fitness, health and wellness. There are virtual dance parties, yoga and bingo nights. Athletes are also able to continue training with coaches and mentors.
Such efforts have been a lifeline for Parsons, who was furloughed from her job at the Burgerville at Southeast 92nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard at the start of the pandemic. Because of health issues, she’s not been back to work since.
“For the first month I had no structure in my life,” she said. “I was just at home staying inside, doing nothing.”
That all changed as Special Olympics Oregon moved online. Parsons now enjoys a weekly mindfulness class to help cope with stress and anxiety, a social hour with friends and other athletes across the state, as well as other programs.
On a recent Wednesday evening, she and 10 other athletes hopped on Zoom to work out with a volunteer trainer. They spent the next hour doing sets of jumping jacks, squats and weight training exercises.
“How is everyone feeling?” the trainer, Chloe Hammond-Bradley, asked her class.
Parsons and the others responded with waves and a series of thumbs-up.
Of course, the current virtual configuration is not without its challenges. Not all who would participate in Special Olympics Oregon have access to social media, a computer or a reliable internet connection.
“What keeps me up at night are the athletes we’re not reaching right now,” Oase said. “Our virtual programs will never take the place of sports.”
At the same time, the ongoing public health crisis has also demonstrated just how resilient Special Olympics Oregon athletes can be.
“They will find a way to thrive in almost any environment,” Oase said. “It’s incredible.”
Parsons chalks it up to the lifelong friends she’s made along the way.
“We’re just accepting of each other,” Parsons said. “We’re like a family.”
What your donation can do
$25: Supports one athlete registration, training materials and medal for a Special Olympics Oregon Virtual Season.
$50: Supports five athletes’ virtual connection and wellness program online.
$100: Provides at-home sports equipment, materials and inclusive programming for one athlete for an entire school year.
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh; 503-294-7632
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh