There was a time in Sarnia when children and young adults with intellectual disabilities had very little to do.
Once they aged out of Pathways Health Centre programs, they were apt to spend a lot of time sitting at home.
Then along came Tana Manchester.
In less than five years, she and a dedicated group of volunteers have introduced no less than eight Special Olympics sports to Sarnia, creating a special network of friends and a supportive place for 125 young people.
At various times of the year, they now have power lifting, track, soccer, basketball, swim, curling, bowling and floor hockey.
The training, the games and the competitions surrounding local Special Olympics can keep a young athlete pretty busy and at events three nights a week or more.
It’s fun. It’s good exercise. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a place of acceptance and belonging.
“Tana makes the world more inclusive,” says her friend Helen Van Sligtenhorst whose 23-year-old daughter, Sydney, has Down Syndrome.
“Sydney loves being busy and being with her friends,” said Helen. “Five years ago, my daughter did nothing. Now she does basketball, bowling and, when she couldn’t do power lifting anymore, Tana made her a coach.
“She said, let’s find something that makes Sydney feel valued. That’s what Tana does. She gives them worthwhile activities and, through them, friendships are made.”
“She really is exceptional. She’s a magic-maker.”
In 2017, a community meeting was held at Pathways to see if there was any interest in bringing Special Olympics to Sarnia. Special Olympics aren’t held at specific times like other Olympics. They run every week year-round.
Anne Lannan whose son David Redmond, 32, has Down Syndrome, attended that introductory Special Olympics meeting. So did Tana and her family.
“As parents, we knew we needed something to keep our kids active,” said Anne. “We needed people like Tana. She agreed to be the co-ordinator for Special Olympics Sarnia.” Anne is the treasurer.
“Tana took the reins and ran with it,” she said. “She sees an opportunity and takes it on with boundless energy.”
Tana volunteers five to 20 hours a week with Special Olympics.
“She does such an exceptional job and she’s always working on something, so I think people think Tana is paid,” said Anne. “Really, the smiles are her only pay.”
Tana’s efforts – with the assistance of at least 60 regular volunteers – have brought numerous Special Olympics events to Sarnia including a soccer tournament that will be held at the Corunna Athletic Park June 24 with teams from across southwestern Ontario.
Some of Sarnia’s athletes head to Brantford July 8 for a track meet. And, of course, there’s also the Provincial Games for those who qualify.
“Honestly, none of this feels like work,” says Tana. “I don’t really keep track of the hours. It’s absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done for myself and for Emma.”
Emma is her 18-year-old daughter who is a person with intellectual disabilities. Before her mom began co-ordinating Special Olympics, Emma aged out of Pathways and tried to participate in typical sports.
“But the gap was too big and she wasn’t able to participate in a meaningful way,” said Tana.
“I watch her at practice now and, if there is one word I would use to describe Special Olympics, it’s joy.”
The program is busy already but Tana is excited about creating more Special Olympic opportunities in Sarnia.
“I’d love to run bocce ball,” she said. “I just need the coaches.”
And she doesn’t want to leave the youngest kids out either. For those aged 2 – 7 who aren’t old enough to compete, Tana and her volunteers recently introduced an Active Start Program to teach basic skills.
In true form, she is concerned that there are still parents in Sarnia-Lambton sitting at home with their children because they aren’t sure if they can participate in Special Olympics.
“If you’re unsure, call me,” she said. (519-312-3170). “We are a safe space. We are parents too and we all get it.”
Who do you consider an exceptional person in Sarnia-Lambton? Nominate someone you know and explain why you think they should be The Journal’s Exceptional Person of the Week. Email [email protected].