A year ago, I spotted a Facebook post appealing for volunteers for the Special Olympics GB – to be held in Sheffield in August 2017. Until that post, I’d never heard of the Special Olympics (only The Olympics and The Para-Olympics). As I read more about the country’s largest multi-sports event for athletes with intellectual disabilities, I was amazed by the staggering statistics:
- 2,600 competing athletes with intellectual disabilities – of all ages and abilities
- 800 sport coaches
- 1,000 volunteers
- 200 officials
- Over 7,000 family and friends in the audience, supporting the athletes
What incredible numbers and a massive coup for the Steel City! Despite not being sporty in any way, shape or form, this was an event I really wanted to get involved with. I couldn’t wait to play my part and help those whom I knew taking part in such games would mean so much to. Last summer, I completed the online application form, answering questions about my skills, experiences and the activities for which I’d be best suited (making sure I didn’t tick any boxes for sporting coach, umpire or referee!). ‘Thanks for your application,’ the Special Olympics organisers replied, ‘we will be in touch in the coming months’.
As promised, a few months later I received an email offering me the role of ‘Events Services Manager’ for football. After rigorously reading through the email, I was relieved to see that I did not have to manage the actual football competition! There is being pushed outside of your comfort zone, and then there is being pushed down the metaphorical stairs (I chuckled to myself!). I was reassured to learn that this role would involve organising and managing the Welcome and Information Desks at Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park – the site for the football matches. My additional roles included co-ordinating support for the athletes and their families, and managing media contacts and honoured guests on site. These tasks were much better suited to my skills gleaned from previous work in the voluntary and community sector, as well as my experience as a Council Team Director, former Local President and National Board member for Junior Chamber International (JCI).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the initial training and induction in April 2017, but I met other (fantastic) volunteers at a later session. Along with the key policies and procedures, we were trained on sensitivity when working with people with intellectual disabilities.
When the week finally arrived, Monday (7th August) involved meeting the rest of the football volunteer management team to walk around and familiarise ourselves with the venue. We also needed to prepare to brief our team of 70 volunteers, who would be arriving a few hours later to get their instructions and duties for the week.
Our team of happy helpers started to arrive in the afternoon to view the venue and to be given key information about their role. Each member of the management team then had some time with their own individual teams. I briefed my team, throwing in a few ice breaker exercises. We then spent a few hours helping to shift literally thousands of bottles of water to different parts of the venue, luckily making use of the University golf buggy that one of the staff members drove around, making countless trips! On the Tuesday (8th August), the first day of the competition and also opening ceremony day, I was gutted that the weather was diabolical – raining for most of the day, so our bright green volunteer t-shirts and blue hoodies were soon covered with plastic ponchos! However, the rain did not dampen the spirit of the athletes, their supporters and families, nor the army of volunteers who shrugged off the rain and carried on. The excitement in the venue was electric, and I could tell early on how important the games were to the athletes and how proud they all felt to be able to take part and compete. Watching the reaction of the spectating families supporting their athletes was priceless – the screams of joy and the tears rolling down their cheek when their sons, grandsons and brothers scored a goal.
As I say, I’m no football expert, but I did notice a few differences. For the Special Olympic GB National Games, there were 24 teams of 6-a-side playing over 5 leagues. Each match lasted 30-40 minutes with two halves. One key difference I noticed was that there were no incidents of footballers overacting if they fell over!
I must have clocked at least 45 hours volunteering this week – and I know many others did way more than that (I had a morning off to attend a job interview!). It was definitely worth taking the week off work, and I loved every single minute! The event also inspired me to propose to my place of work to introduce an employer-supported volunteering policy (which has been accepted). This policy will enable others to get involved with similarly amazing opportunities as they’ll be encouraged to volunteer (during working hours) for a few days per year.
To sum up the week…an incredible experience…fabulous people…wonderful achievements. Thank you Special Olympics for giving me the chance to be involved.
2017 Yorkshire Regional Group Chair
JCI Sheffield member since 2012
Categorised in: Community
This post was written by Mark Smith