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Changing lives: Special Olympics NY creates forever confidence

A shy, timid kid stood inside a soccer net playing goalie. He didn’t want to play on the field, and he didn’t want to steal the ball from the other kids playing. That same kid is now a fiercely competitive 25-year-old who’s confident and plays 10 sports.

This is because of Special Olympics NY (SONY), the coaches who instilled the positive sportsmanship in him and the funders who helped make it happen.

2020 has created a different way of life and new adaptations for many people and events, including SONY’s annual fundraiser – Polar Plunge. Polar Plunge — where eager fundraisers forget about winter for 10 minutes, dress up in their best costumes and plunge into 35-degree Lake Erie water at a small beach in Hamburg, NY — went virtual this year. Participants are now engaging in their own mini plunges — throwing mid-December water balloon wars, plunging into Lake Erie by themselves and jumping into backyard pools to make sure they’re still getting that frozen water shock that donors are pledging.

They know it’s for something bigger than themselves, and they’ll continue doing whatever possible to make sure the athletes are still in the game.

The event may look different this year, but the cause remains just as important and life changing. According to Erica Raepple, director of development, western region for SONY, Special Olympics has benefited many athletes globally, and in Western New York alone, 4,400 athletes participate in SONY sporting competitions and events annually.

During a Covid-free year, Erica fundraises nearly $500,000 for the organization to benefit local athletes, but this year she anticipates the donations to decrease to $200,000. Last year was the largest Plunge year with more 1,000 people registered to plunge, and this year, 300 people signed up.

She’s proud of the plungers, though, and their support for the athletes. She looks forward to the day where the athletes can participate in sports again, thanks to the community’s help.

“SONY is more than just sports – we are a support system, we are an outlet, we are an escape, we are a reason to stay active and competitive and we are a family,” Erica said. “Donating to Special Olympics this year ensures that we are able to provide unique ways to keep our athletes active, like our sports season at home. It ensures that when all of this is over, SONY can still be there for our athletes and their families.”

Two of those athletes are Hailey Wilson and Joe Scherrer, who are also longtime fundraisers and participants of Polar Plunge.

Hailey, 16, has been involved with SONY for the past 10 years. She started by raising money in different capacities for the organization, and then brought the passion she had for fundraising to the swimming pool. Hailey is now a multi award-winning swimmer in freestyle and backstroke, and has enjoyed meeting many new friends through her years of competition.

Hailey’s father, Jeff, has been an avid supporter of Special Olympics for decades, even leading its annual Torch Run fundraiser. Their family is also a large supporter of Polar Plunge, and Hailey loves dunking her dad in the water for a good cause. Through their years of support and sportsmanship, Jeff has seen the effects the organization has had on his daughter and the thousands of other athletes.

“She gets to compete in a venue that’s nonjudgmental,” Jeff said. “She gets to compete against other athletes…and it’s true competition…it teaches [the athletes] how to win, it teaches them how to lose, and most of all, they make those connections which is really important.”

Joe Scherrer is another athlete who’s felt the long-lasting effects of SONY on his life.

After Joe survived a near-fatal experience with meningitis at six days old, he was left with disabilities that have delayed his speech and thought processing, leading him to being withdrawn, and he was never interested in sports or competition growing up.

But, that changed for him when his mother Diane signed him up for a bowling league through SONY when he was 18. Through that, Joe met Mary Bracikowski, head coach of Friends United, who has coached him in bowling, soccer and six other sports. The now 25-year-old has an inseparable bond with Mary.

When Mary first met Joe, she says he wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. He was the athlete that stood in the back and watched everyone else. Through his years of playing sports, Joe now brims with confidence to greet new teammates, helps his teammates and even leads exercises before practice.

“My favorite part of being Joe’s coach is being able to see him flourish and grow into an awesome person and athlete,” Mary said. “Joe’s hard work and dedication is inspirational. The defining moment for me of Joe was when he tapped the shoulder of one of his teammates and told him, ‘Come here I will show you how to do it,’…Joe is becoming a leader.”

With joyful tears in her eyes and donning Special Olympics’ 50th anniversary hoodie, Diane explains the catalytic impact SONY and Mary have made on her son’s life.

“[Mary] sees them as individuals, and not kids with disabilities,” Diane said. “She sees what they can do, and not what their limitations are. She cares about these kids and she really pushes them. She doesn’t put limits on them.”

The once-timid kid who didn’t want to steal the ball in soccer, was now a competitive athlete participating in 10 sports, with his favorite being floor hockey.

“He’s like a beast in floor hockey,” Diane said. “He’s got his stick to the ground and he’s stealing that puck and he’s running out and pushing people out of his way, and he’s scoring goals. It’s amazing to see. Without Special Olympics, this would not be possible for Joe. Joe would’ve never had these activities.”

To donate to Polar Plunge to benefit SONY athletes, click here.

This Hope Rises story graciously provided by freelance writer, Vilona Trachtenberg.