November 16, 2022 at 9:11 p.m.

Special young athletes

Special  young athletes
Special young athletes

By Ben Sonnek- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Community-supported program resumes in Sauk Centre

The evening of Nov. 8 was this year’s last meeting of Sauk Centre’s Special Olympics Young Athletes program. Everybody met as usual in the Sauk Centre Armory, playing games and seeing all the familiar faces, but when the day drew to a close, things ended a little differently: Officer Dean Jungles with the Sauk Centre Police Department stopped by to give every participant a T-shirt and a certificate, congratulating the children’s completion of the program.

The Special Olympics Young Athletes started thanks to the efforts of Joel and Emily Dunn from Sauk Centre, and since about 2018, it has been headed by the families of Jessica and Derek Essler and Jess and Jamie Hiltner.

“We had our kids join because we have kids with special needs,” Jess said. “After a few years of the kids participating, Joel and Emily moved up to (Special Olympics) Junior Eagles, and we took over young athletes.”

Young Athletes is a sports-based program for ages 2-7; children with and without special needs get to mingle and support each other’s skill development. The program works on children’s individual skills in different areas of sports, such as kicking, overhand and underhand throwing, catching and balance.

The program normally runs for eight-week sessions in the spring and fall, but because this fall was their first time back after 2020’s COVID-19 shutdowns, they ran a shorter six-week session.

To help with the program, the Esslers and Hiltners have help from a wide range of community members, including some high school students. Siblings of children in the program can also assist where needed.

“We couldn’t do it without all of our volunteers,” Jessica said.

Other volunteers handle the program’s material needs; for instance, the National Guard allowed them to use the Sauk Centre Armory, the Sauk Centre Rotary Club provided speakers for music and the American Legion out of Little Sauk donated snacks.

In order to adequately accommodate everyone and be able to provide one-on-one attention, the Young Athletes program is capped around 35. There is the possibility of expanding the program to include more children and divide it into sessions based on age, but more volunteers would be required.

“We definitely have the interest of more than 35 kids, but we have to set a cap,” Jessica said.

Jessica and Jess have gotten a lot of positive feedback from their participants – parents and children – who often refer to it as “gym class.”

“They each had individual favorites, and they’re excited to tell us what their favorite part of the night was,” Jess said. “I think the parents are really enjoying watching their kids participate in getting these sports skills.”

The next Young Athletes sessions are expected to begin sometime in March 2023. Some of those students who left the Sauk Centre Armory Nov. 8 with their T-shirts and certificates are likely to return, provided the program retains its community support.

“I grew up in a small community, and so everyone knew each other,” Jess said. “Sauk Centre is a rather large community; you would think it would be a little more distant than what it is, but people rally. We felt that support with our volunteers, with the armory, with the Little Sauk Legion, and it’s the community that makes it possible.”


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