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Impacting athletes, families is most meaningful

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Joanne Zahaiko, at a recent Special  Olympics meet, first got involved in 1992.

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Joanne Zahaiko, at a recent Special Olympics meet, first got involved in 1992.

Joanne Zahaiko knows a thing or two about commitment.

For more than 20 years, Zahaiko has volunteered with Special Olympics Manitoba, an organization that enriches the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through participation in sports.

Zahaiko first got involved in 1992 as a Grade 9 student after seeing how much fun her older sister was having volunteering with them.

Since then, Zahaiko has coached a variety of sports, including basketball and snowshoeing. She currently sits on the organization's board of directors and coaches the track team, which will compete in the Special Olympics Canada Summer Games in Vancouver next month.

Zahaiko said she continues to volunteer with Special Olympics after all these years because she gets as much out of the experience as she gives, if not more.

"I'm getting friendships, I'm getting training, I'm getting pure enjoyment," said the 35-year-old, who was recently selected to go with Team Canada to the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2015. "The relationships I've made with the athletes and the people I've met is incredible. It's become a social thing for me."

Her involvement has also shaped her career path. Zahaiko did not know anyone with a disability before she got involved with Special Olympics, but the experience was so rewarding it led her to become a resource teacher at Miles Macdonell Collegiate, where she is currently the acting vice-principal.

These days, Zahaiko spends five or six hours each week volunteering. The relationships she builds with the athletes is what she most enjoys.

"They appreciate you, they're happy to see you, they love to talk to you and spend time with you," she said. "It doesn't matter what you've experienced that day. After working with them, you can come out refreshed and rejuvenated."

Seeing the impact Special Olympics has on athletes and their families is particularly meaningful.

In the lead-up to competitions, coaches push the athletes to perform to the best of their abilities. What they accomplish in the process, including the opportunity to compete at the national and world levels, can be a surprise to those around them.

"Sometimes the families didn't know the achievements could be that great," Zahaiko said, adding it's special to share in the pride the families feel. "You're really contributing to the quality of life of the individual."

Special Olympics Manitoba is currently looking for coaches and program volunteers. Anyone interested can find more information by visiting www.specialolympics.mb.ca.

Zahaiko encourages people to get involved. There are a variety of different things people can do, and they can choose their level of commitment, whether it's weekly, monthly or once a year.

The organization provides training. While a passion for sports is an asset, it isn't a prerequisite. Zahaiko said one of the greatest coaches she knows didn't know anything about sports before she began volunteering.

"You don't have to love sports," Zahaiko said. "You just have to love people."

 

If you know a special volunteer, please contact: aaron.epp@gmail.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2014 A6

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