It’s an overcast day at Patriots Point Links, but this doesn’t stop the athletes from rolling in. Coach Shelli Davis, FUNdamentals and Therapeutic Recreation Coordinator for Mount Pleasant, says they’re expecting about 19 athletes this golf season – their biggest turnout. Some are brand new to golf and it’s their first practice, but others, like Nikki DeWitte, have been at it for years. Today, DeWitte prepares for a competition in Florida.
When asked about her favorite part of golfing, DeWitte replies, “Practice, because it’s fun getting ready for the next competition.” She enjoys traveling, and Special Olympics has given DeWitte the opportunity to travel from one end of the globe to the other. Last year, DeWitte and her family traveled to Macau, China to compete in a golf tournament where about 20 other countries were represented. She’s been in Phoenix, AZ and Florida for golf events as well.
DeWitte, 16, is a sophomore at Wando High School and is your typical teenager who enjoys the beach and going out to eat on the weekends. “She loves music – listening to it and singing it. Oh, and she also loves her Airedale terrier, Zak,” her mom laughs. She’s been involved with Special Olympics since age 8. From there, she had exposure to the 26 different sports offered and chose the ones she enjoys the most, like basketball, golf, swimming, and soccer, which she plays today.
For DeWitte, who has autism, golfing is a bonding activity for her and her parents, Natasha and John, who regularly go together as a family. “Golf is something we all enjoy and it’s something we can all do together at our own pace,” Natasha says, “Special Olympics is a wonderful program – it’s not just the sport aspect, but the friendship that comes from it, the working as a team, along with keeping healthy and fit,” Natasha says.
The opportunities for different sports are endless – from kayaking on the coast to downhill skiing in the upcountry. And perhaps that’s the biggest misconception – that Special Olympics is just a one-day event, but in actuality, it’s year-round sports training and competitions.
For some of these athletes, Special Olympics is everything. This is especially true of the adult athletes who may not have as many opportunities available to them. In fact, it was the lack of programs available to adults that gave the push for Special Olympics in the area 25 years ago. It began with a basketball team and the rest is history.
Without the right leaders, these opportunities might not be available. Davis, who’s been coaching year-round for various sports over the past 12 years, says she fell into the job, “I didn’t have any experience working with those with special needs, but after volunteering for Special Olympics in college, I realized it was something I enjoyed and came very naturally.”
DeWitte’s mother Natasha confirms this saying Davis truly is a saint – working during the day and then coming to many of the practices for several hours after work. To make this happen, Davis relies heavily on volunteers – many of whom are the athletes’ parents. “Volunteers make everything. It really is true,” Davis says.
In fact, Special Olympics is 99% volunteer driven, and with 1,500 athletes in the Charleston area, there are a lot of volunteers necessary to keep a program this large afloat and running smoothly.
Since no athlete or their family pays a penny to compete and play, fundraising also plays a large role. “Many think since we’re so well known that we’re very well-funded, but that isn’t the case,” Sandye Williams, Director of Marketing and Development for Special Olympics South Carolina says.
There are two large fundraisers each year: a bocce tournament in the spring and this year’s 17th annual gala, which is on November 11th. There are silent auctions, food, and it’s an excuse to get fancy. To purchase tickets you can go to: SOGala.org.
Byers echoes Davis noting that, “The support we receive is everything. There are so many worthy causes out there that we compete with, but without the support, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”