Special fun for families with special needs

Christie Day, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Monday afternoons in Markham are a treasured time for York Region residents who have special needs. That’s when members of two teams gather to play their favourite sports – curling in the winter at the Unionville Curling Club, and softball in the summer on the ball diamond at Markham’s Centennial Community Centre.

Several athletes play on both teams. Ages and intellectual abilities vary widely. All share a great desire to be active.

“We so look forward to Mondays,” says long-time organizer and coach Jane Morgan. “The athletes arrive ready to play, coaches love volunteering their time, families appreciate the support, and we’ve formed some wonderful friendships.”

The two programs exist under the umbrella of Special Olympics Ontario, York South Division. SOO, as it’s known to participants, is a community-based organization dedicated to enriching the lives of people with an intellectual disability through sport. Its prime way to deliver programs is through community sports clubs operated by trusted volunteers and coaches.

Morgan, herself an avid curler, launched the curling program in 2001, gaining the Unionville Curling Club’s support to dedicate an hour of ice time each week and recruiting a few club members to volunteer their time. The softball segment was added in 2004.

The curling athletes call themselves the “Unionville Sweep.” Most Mondays from October to March, they practice throwing rocks and sweeping before playing a set of games, with coaches giving tips and making sure everyone stays involved.

“It’s been wonderful to have the SOO group back,” says club manager Lynda Goodwin. “We missed the smiles.”

Thanks to a recent Ontario Trillium grant, renovations to the 100-year-old curling club building have refreshed the facility for all to use.

The first pandemic lockdown in 2020 interrupted the curling season and cancelled softball that summer. To maintain connections, coaches began a series of “driveway visits” – chatting with SOO athletes and family members at a safe distance. When the weather turned cold, the teams met virtually on Zoom, sharing photos and stories of favourite activities, travel experiences and celebrations. Monthly in-person and virtual visits continued right through early 2022.

“While the lockdowns kept us sidelined for two years,” adds co-organizer and coach Terry Halliday, “visiting helped us get to know each other better.”

Of course, everyone was thrilled when the softball program resumed in June 2022 at Centennial Community Centre. Curling restarted in October, and the whole group continues to wear masks while playing.

Jane Morgan appreciates the guidance and training provided by Special Olympics Ontario, not to mention help received from the community to acquire needed gear as well as the volunteering of precious free time. “Our coaches are fantastic people, not just for their care and skill but for such commitment over the years.”

For more about SOO and its many community-run programs, visit specialolympicsontario.com.

Christie Day, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Markham Review