By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – It's a landmark year for the Special Needs Program of the Shrewsbury Parks and Recreation Department, as well as one of its major fundraisers. While the free program is celebrating its 25th anniversary, the 10th annual Special 5K Road Race and One-Mile Fun Run was held July 27, beginning and ending at Floral Street Elementary School.
A volunteer board of directors and coaches run the program, which offers athletic and social activities. Virginia Davidson, a program co-chair, started volunteering 19 years ago when her son became involved as an athlete. She recognizes that the experience benefits both the athletes and their families.
“For the athletes, the program builds confidence and self-esteem,” she noted. “For the families, they realize that they have a support group. Usually, kids all learn to play together on the same soccer team and that's how neighbors get to know each other. But when you have a child with intellectual disabilities, there may not be a whole team of soccer players on your street; so this is a first time for many parents of children with intellectual disabilities to get together and talk about common fears, problems, joys, and to celebrate their children's lives.”
The program started with a basketball team for nine participants. Now, over 100 athletes train in various sports including basketball, bocce, bowling, golf, skiing, soccer, track and field, and volleyball. They have the option to compete in statewide Special Olympics events. Athletes can train for competitive sports at age 6 and can compete at age 8. There's no maximum age for participants.
Also provided are social activities such as family picnics, holiday parties and trips to Pawtucket Red Sox games. Dances are hosted for program participants by the Shrewsbury Knights of Columbus. The organization also donates to the program the proceeds of its 5K race held during the Spirit of Shrewsbury Fall Festival.
“There's also “fun bowling,” which goes year-round,” Davidson said. “We have bowling as a competitive sport, as well as “fun bowling” on Saturday mornings. That turns out to be very social.”
Because it's a free program run by volunteers, fundraising is crucial. Annual fundraisers include a spaghetti supper each fall. In the winter, a group from the Shrewsbury program known as the Plunging Pirates collect donations from sponsors and then travel to Nantasket Beach for the Polar Plunge, organized by the Special Olympics of Massachusetts. This past February, the Plunging Pirates raised over $18,000.
“That helps us pay for bus transportation and uniforms,” Davidson said. “Our athletes stay in hotels when they go to the winter games in Worcester. Special Olympics pays for the majority of that, but we need to supplement it for each athlete.”
Once again this year, the Special 5K Road Race and One-Mile Fun Run race was organized by its founder, Peggy Holdash. She's a former track coach at Shrewsbury High School and teacher at Oak Middle School, who moved to Connecticut five years ago.
“The fact that Peggy keeps coming back to organize this race shows her commitment to our athletes and to fundraising for our program,” Davidson said. “She shows so much compassion and respect for them.”
Davidson invites families or volunteers who are interested in the program to contact the board of directors at [email protected]
“The program has been responsible for changing the lives of so many individuals and family members,” she said. “We continue to learn from our athletes every day. No matter how old or young they are, they continue to teach us which are the giant steps and which are the baby steps.”
For more information, visit shrewsbury-ma.gov/department/division.php?fDD=4-180.