Colington couple coaches a Special Olympics comeback

By on December 27, 2016

K.E. and Kathleen Morgan have led the program the past three years.

Whether Kathleen and K.E. Morgan are on the pool deck, basketball court or track, it doesn’t seem to matter. Athletes just naturally gravitate to them — for words of encouragement, advice or just to share the highlights of their day.

Seeing the interactions again and again between coaches and athletes, it’s not hard to understand why the Morgans have been the driving force in turning around a program that was, just three year ago, in dire straits and in danger of folding completely.

The Colington Harbour couple knew they wanted to volunteer with Special Olympics Dare County when they retired to the Outer Banks three years ago. They were seasoned swim coaches with the program in Suffolk, Va. Before that, Kathleen volunteered with Holiday House of Portsmouth Inc.

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But they’ve done more than just volunteer. They’ve made it their life’s mission to see that intellectually disabled residents of all ages in Dare and Currituck counties are provided the opportunity to experience the positive benefits of sports in their lives.

Since the Morgans took the reins three years ago, the number of athletes participating in Special Olympics Dare County has grown from 30 to more than 80, and the number of sports offered has increased from three — basketball, bowling and track — to seven. Now athletes can also participate in sports ranging from aquatics and bocce to cheerleading and horseback riding.

The Morgans with some of the Special Olympians.

2016 was a year of firsts for Special Olympics Dare County. It hosted its first invitational swim meet and 3v3 March Madness Scrimmage, as well as its first invitational Spring Games and Valentine’s Day Dance, held at the Dare County Parks and Recreation Center in Kill Devil Hills.

This year marked the first time athletes participated in both the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Manteo Christmas Parade.
Until recently, Kathleen, local program coordinator, said, “people just didn’t really know we had Special Olympics in Dare County.”

That’s no longer the case. The Special Olympics teams have a strong presence on the Outer Banks, with the community supporting them and cheering them on at competitions locally and at state games. The teams practice at the YMCA, the Dare Center in Manteo, Kill Devil Hills Parks and Recreation and the First Flight High School Track.

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And now, with the help of a group of dedicated volunteers, Special Olympics Dare County holds annual fundraisers, one of which is the Pig Pickin’ at Outer Banks Marina in Wanchese held over Labor Day weekend. The second annual event this past September raised $10,000 for the program. Local non-profits have also made a huge difference with monetary contributions.

The program received a $5,000 grant from the Outer Banks Community Foundation for the first time this year, along with its first $3,000 grant from the North Banks Rotary Club. The local Fraternal Order of the Eagles and Knights of Columbus have also lent financial support.

Kathleen’s passion for working with persons with special needs began back in college. Originally she majored in special education but was told by an adviser to switch majors because of the lack of jobs in the field. “I didn’t want to, but I did what they told me and studied medical technology and environmental health. But I never wanted to stop being in special education. I just never gave up on it.”

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Now, Kathleen’s volunteer role in Special Olympics Dare County equates to what many would argue is a full-time job. At the very least, she puts in about 30 hours a week, sometimes more. In mid-January, the program’s swim team will begin training at the YMCA twice a week and other sports will be in full swing.

A few athletes participate in just one sport, but Kathleen and K.E. say they try to encourage involvement in as many as possible. “We tell them to try them all and find one you love. That’s how you get good athletes,” Kathleen said.

For the past five years, the Special Olympics Dare County Spring Games have been held at the First Flight High School Track and Field complex and in early June, dozens of local athletes travel to participate in the North Carolina Special Olympics State Summer Games.

Fundraising, Kathleen said, is crucial. There is never a charge for an athlete to participate in any Special Olympics sport, so the program is solely dependent on donations from individuals, grants and fund raisers.

“This program is so important to the athletes,” says Kathleen. “They deserve better. Anyone else can go out and participate in sports, and they should be able to as well. They want to be a part and experience the joy of sports and the friendships that develop.”

Seeing how it changes lives keeps Kathleen motivated and committed, she said.

“To see the self-esteem that blossoms in a child not being able to put their face in the water to becoming better swimmers is indescribable. We don’t concentrate on disabilities here, only on abilities. And these athletes are driven and want to do their best. They are just wonderful.”

As for Kathleen and K.E., they’ve made some lasting bonds with the athletes. “I think I even know each of their favorite colors,” she said. “I just love it.”

Interested in volunteering with Special Olympics?
An interest meeting will be held on Jan. 25 at 12 p.m. and then 7 p.m. at the Outer Banks Family YMCA to generate much-needed volunteer interest to assist with the growing program. There is a need for committee chairs, coaches, grant writers, school liaisons and more.

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