November 29, 2022 at 3:04 p.m.
Sauk Centre-Melrose Special Olympics offers three programs
Joel Dunn gave daughter Betsy a high-five after she knocked down bowling pins at Melrose Bowl in Melrose Oct. 30.
Betsy Dunn was among Sauk Centre-Melrose Special Olympics Junior Eagles bowling with their unified partners.
“Basically, they are learning skills, pre-competition,” Joel Dunn said.
His wife, Emily, said there are three program levels in Sauk Centre-Melrose Special Olympics – Young Athletes, Unified Juniors (locally called Junior Eagles) and Golden Eagles. Each of these programs is funded separately.
Young Athletes is a sports play program that introduces children with and without intellectual disabilities, ages 2-7, to the world of sports. Derek and Jessica Essler and Jamie and Jess Hiltner coach the program.
The Junior Eagles program, coached by Joel and Emily Dunn, is for youth with intellectual disabilities, ages 8-18.
“It focuses on learning the basics of a sport, so when they join the actual golden eagles, the focus can be on competition,” Emily Dunn said.
The Junior Eagles rely heavily on unified partners, who are youth ages 8-18 without intellectual disabilities. The Dunns’ teenage sons, Harry, 16, and Linus, 11, are unified partners.
“Our athletes love interacting and learning from our unified partners,” Emily Dunn said.
She said they can always use more unified partners, who assist the athletes during sporting events. Many of their current partners are high school students.
“They love having the kids they see in school come here, interact with them and bowl with them,” Emily Dunn said.
The Golden Eagles program, coached by Sarah Athmann and Jenna Sunderman, offers competitive sports, including bowling, basketball, track and field, flag football and swimming.
“Sarah and Jenna are the brains and administration behind all of our local Golden Eagles sports, and usually other people volunteer to coach,” Emily Dunn said. “They do a flawless job of running this very large and successful program.”
The athletes and their families appreciate the cohesiveness and camaraderie within the programs.
Including the Dunns, daughter Betsy, who was born with Down syndrome, was nine months old when they moved to Sauk Centre in 2010, and they were searching for a program to help Betsy with her gross motor skills.
“In 2012, I came across a program put on by St. Ben’s students called Young Athletes,” Emily Dunn said. “We loved it so much that we drove her down once a week for eight-week-long sessions twice a year.”
Wanting to join a program closer to Sauk Centre, she contacted Special Olympics of Minnesota to get the young athletes program set up locally.
“By 2013 we were up and running and it took off like wildfire,” she said. “We were blown away by time, gifts and talents our community was willing to share in order to help kiddos like Betsy.”
Betsy aged out of the program in 2016. By 2017, the Esslers and Hiltners had taken over for the Dunns so they could focus on getting the Junior Eagles program going in 2018. They only had a couple of Junior Eagles sessions before COVID-19 hit, so they appreciate starting again.
“The Junior Eagles were able to bowl on their own for the entirety of this season so they learn the skills they need before they feel they are ready to join the Golden Eagles competitive teams,” Emily Dunn said.
The bowling alley provides assistance, like bumpers on either side of individual alleys, to help increase athletes’ skills.
“Some kids are bowling without bumpers so they are getting close to moving to the Sunday league,” Emily Dunn said.
The Dunns said SC-M Special Olympic athletes and families appreciate the support from the area.
“We are so fortunate in the Sauk Centre, Melrose and surrounding communities to have the support for these amazing kids that need our support and are very valuable members of our communities, if given the opportunity,” Emily Dunn said.