Special Olympians shine in Pittsfield

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 7:27 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — The slopes and trails of Pinnacle Park were alive with energy Friday as Special Olympians from Somerset and upper Kennebec counties converged in the snow and sunshine.

Nearly 50 men and women — ranging in age from 6 to 70 — donned snowshoes and skis, rode snowmobiles and enjoyed a hearty lunch and gallons of hot chocolate.

Those not feeling athletic became cheerleaders, shouting encouragement and giving those who finished various events a pat on the back or a big hug.

The most common words spoken appeared to be “good job,” offered by both competitors and volunteers.

Another 35 Olympians were competing at the Skowhegan Community Center, unable to travel to Pittsfield.

The day’s organizer, Maxine Buzzell of Vienna, said it is so rewarding to see the Olympians grow through the annual winter program.

“First, I see them walking carefully on the snow,” she said. “The next year, they might put on snowshoes. The third year, some of them are skiing. But while I see them making the most of it, I also know some will never make it up the slopes.”

It won’t be for lack of trying, she said. “Special needs people seem to try 15 to 20 percent harder than everyone else. They don’t see their limitations.”

Fred Landry, 38, lives in Embden and was snowshoeing Friday morning. He was asked if it was fun. “Yeah!” he replied with an enthusiast shout.

Robyn Rowe and Linda Hutchins of Winslow said they didn’t really like the snow, so they concentrated on cheering everyone else on. John Gagnon of Sidney, in line for hot chocolate, said he had been snowshoeing and the women did a great job of cheerleading.

Ricky Davis of Waterville, who uses a wheelchair, was given rides on snowmobiles operated by volunteers from the Driftbusters Snowmobile Club in Pittsfield.

“I was not scared. I went fast and it was great,” he said, quickly adding “this day is pretty nice. I have a date with a girl tonight. It’s a supper date then a dance.”

The event, which consisted of four hours of winter sports followed by an evening banquet and dance, was made possible through a network of volunteers.

“There are only five paid workers for Special Olympics in the entire state,” Buzzell said. “We couldn’t do it without the volunteers.”

Donna Stolarz and Bob Folger of Palmyra showed up to help after they read about the event. Stolarz’s sister Donna, 56, lives next door to them and is mentally handicapped. Stolarz has cared for her sister all her life.

“Special needs people keep life so simple,” she said. “They want a roof over their head, something to eat and music. They don’t want everyone else to just walk by or look away, but rather they crave acknowledgment of their existence.”

Pinnacle Park appeared to be the perfect place for the event. Pinnacle President Jennifer Siter, who was staffing the kitchen Friday, said it was very gratifying that the slope was selected for the Special Olympics, especially because, a few years ago, it appeared the slope was doomed.

“It hadn’t snowed in several years and the volunteers had really lost their momentum,” she said. In late 2007, a community meeting was held — sort of a do-or-die last stand — to try to revive the volunteer corps.

“Two days later we had 18 inches of snow and we were off and running,” Siter said. Today, the slope has 178 members and on any typical Sunday afternoon, 30 children can be found taking lessons. “We have people coming from all over,” she said, particularly since the closure of Eaton Mountain this winter because it was sold.

“We are not really a sprawling area,” said Gary Jordan of the Pinnacle Club. “We’re perfect for this event. The hills are not intimidating and our lessons are free with a membership. We have five 4-year-olds in our ski school. Our youngest skier is just 2½.”

Jordan said the Pinnacle lodge will be revamped this spring, including placing a gas fireplace insert in the former wood fireplace and upgrading the kitchen and restroom facilities. The club’s goal is to expand the Pinnacle to a four-season destination.

The Pinnacle also recently was awarded a $32,000 grant to upgrade walking trails, install a boat launch, upgrade the parking area, construct fishing and bird-watching platforms and build a skateboard area and ice-skating rink.

Overhearing that comment, a Special Olympian shouted out “Skating? I’d do that.”

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