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More than sports, local Special Olympics chapter gives athletes 'big family'

The Evening News and The Tribune - 8/28/2017

Aug. 27--JEFFERSONVILLE -- Thirty-seven-year-old Kristi Yarbrough first strapped a pair of skis on when she was four years old.

Her lifelong practice of alpine skiing reached its zenith in March-- after a year of training at Perfect North and on the treadmill, Yarbrough took home a bronze medal for Team USA in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.

Yarbrough wore her medal proudly on Saturday night at the Clark/Floyd Counties Special Olympics annual banquet, where she was awarded Athlete of the Year.

What she loves most about Special Olympics isn't the accolades, though she accepts them with humility and a smile.

"Hanging out with my friends and having a lot of fun" is what Yarbrough said keeps her around.

And while Special Olympics revolves around sports, those involved all say it's about much more.

"It's hard to fit in," said Bobbie Binggeli, one of the managers of the Clark and Floyd counties chapter. "And here, they all have their place. It's like one big extended family."

The local division celebrated the year's past achievements on Saturday at a banquet at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where all 273 athletes were given certificates of participation.

"It's to recognize all of our athletes, to let them know that we love them," she said. " ... It's just a good opportunity to bring everybody together because sometimes you've got swimmers that might not play basketball or something else, so they may not really have the opportunity to talk with them. Plus, it's a time for the parents and caregivers to come and we also recognize all of our volunteers and our coaches."

Bobbie and her husband, Steve, have witnessed firsthand the power of Special Olympics.

Their son, also Steven Jr., has participated for more than 25 years. Steven has played golf since he was young, and he and his parents started the golf program for the Clark and Floyd Counties chapter in 1999.

In 2014, Steven played on Team Indiana for the national event in Princeton, bringing home a silver medal. The next year, he and his father won silver for Team USA in an 18-hole competition in Los Angeles.

"It's been probably the best thing that's ever happened to him ..." dad Steve said. Special Olympics has boosted their son's self-confidence, Bobbie says.

Bernie Begin, whose family won Family of the Year on Saturday night, is a big proponent of the program.

"You can't imagine how this program turns people around," he said. "They come in as wallflowers and two years later, it's amazing what these people do with this program."

Take 14-year-old David Edwards as a perfect example, Begin says.

"David started in the program almost three years ago," his mother, said Marla Edwards whose son is on the autism spectrum. "Just going through those challenges of being a teenager, you know low self-esteem and that kind of thing. He just got involved right away, and it turned him around. And now, it's his family."

Of course, that family isn't just made up of participants. It takes coaches, volunteers and families of athletes to make a complete network.

"The majority of people, if you get the family [involved], it stretches," said Bobbie, whose sister-in-law participates in bowling and volunteers with the annual Polar Plunge. " ... That's pretty typical with families involved -- they bring in their families to help run the events."

Special Olympics offers something called unified sports, where friends without special needs participate, too.

The program also relies on community members who don't have a family connection, especially because some participants live in group homes while their families live in other cities.

Jeremy Johnson, who won Coach of the Year, is one of those volunteers. He got involved through a friend.

"I don't have kids," said Johnson, who coaches golf. "It's my way to give back."

He said the only challenge he encountered was learning athletes "are all normal people."

"It's like a family," he said. "This is just like a whole big family. You get to know everybody. It's fun times."


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