It is a very important week in University Park, as Penn State prepares to welcome more than 2,000 athletes and 750-plus coaches for the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games.
The organizational committee is already on campus putting the finishing touches on plans for the nine sport venues, opening and closing ceremonies, meals, evening activities, and more.
As impressive as the throng of athletes and coaches may be, the number of volunteers needed to put on the state-wide games is even more amazing. Senior Competition Director, Jennifer Tresp says it takes an unpaid "staff" of 1600 PER DAY.
"Without the volunteers there would be no way to make these games happen, she said. "They are absolutely priceless."
The list of volunteer jobs includes scorekeepers, timers, lunch line workers, security, Olympic Village booth staff, public address announcers, award presenters, and certified officials. For opening ceremonies alone, one hundred volunteers from Sheetz and Frito Lay help organize the procession of athletes into their seats at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Volunteers are working this week to assemble credentials, prepare for registration, and place directional signs all over campus. The committee even needs bed makers: volunteers who prepare the 3,000 dorm room beds needed for the delegations of athletes.
Among the volunteers are Penn State student-athletes. Nittany Lion football players escort the county contingents into opening ceremonies; the gymnastics teams will staff their event venue throughout the three-day competition; several teams of athletes will be on hand in full force to participate in Friday evening's Sports Fest.
Law enforcement officers have their own special volunteer role this year. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Games' accreditation, police officers will take part in the "Be a Fan" Torch Run, which will begin in Pittsburgh, pass through Altoona, and end at University Park, spreading the Special Olympics message of sportsmanship and camaraderie.
Another special element to this summer's activities will be the inclusion of 14 Team USA athletes who will travel to Greece in a few weeks to take part in the Special Olympics World Games. Among them, Blair County's Krista Genter, a 2011 Special Olympics Hall of Fame inductee, who will compete against athletes from around the globe in tennis.
Perhaps the most important volunteer is the Sheetz Corporation, the primary sponsor and most ardent supporter of Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Sheetz provides precious financial support and much-needed manpower.
While the volunteers are un-paid, they are not without reward.
"I think they do it for the same reason the athletes love to come here: the friendships they create, and the feeling of pride and success among the athletes," Tresp said. "They are so excited about the achievements and sportsmanship of the athlete that it keeps them coming back year after year."
Tresp says that by focusing on abilities rather than disabilities, volunteers allow the athletes they serve to shine. They are repaid ten-fold in proud smiles, bear hugs and high-fives.
To learn more about becoming a Special Olympics volunteer, visit online: SpecialOlympicsPA.org.
Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Kellie@BedfordCountyChamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.