It's Villanova's version of THON. For the last 24 years, the 'Nova student body has put together a Fall Festival, not for a homecoming crowd, football fans, or even the general public. This event is strictly a celebration of Special Olympics.
Like the Summer Games at Penn State, the Fall Festival features all the bells and whistles of Olympic competition: torch run, parade of athletes, opening speeches, oath and more. But what makes this event so amazing is that it's the largest student-run Special Olympics event in the entire world.
"They do an outstanding job," Jane Burget, Head of Delegation for Blair County said. "Two thousand students at Villanova handle most of the refereeing, O-Town, and even assign student cheerleaders to each county for the whole weekend."
The event receives support from Special Olympics Pennsylvania, but it is uniquely the students' own. Some of their special touches include entertainment by campus singing and dance groups, cheerleaders and athletes, as well as a dance and move night.
Fall Fest features its own slate of sporting events as well. Bedford County's contingent of six athletes took home four gold and two silver medals in bocce competitions. The Blair County delegation sent athletes ranging in age from 8 to 74 to compete in bocce, roller skating and long distance running, as well as volleyball team and skills events, bringing home more than a dozen medals.
To get to Villanova and other competitions, all of the Special Olympic county programs participate in year-round fundraising, while always looking for more athletes, coaches and volunteers. They stress that you don't have to be an expert in any sport to coach; training programs are available, perhaps making a big heart and time to spare the most important requirements to becoming a volunteer.
"It's just a joy all the time," said Burget. "To see [the athletes] faces when they do well, to be excited when they win, and to show good sportsmanship when they lose, I love watching them."
While the Villanova students, Special Olympians, coaches and volunteers agree on the wonderful experience the event provides for all, Fall Festival opportunities go far beyond sports. The Healthy Athletes Program provides free screenings and health care to athletes, including podiatry, eye exams and glasses, dentistry and more. While situations that we take for granted, like traveling with a group, staying in a hotel, sticking to a schedule, all promote important life skills that athletes may not get elsewhere.
"It's a lot of fun," said bocce gold medalist Christa Mereen of Bedford. "You get to train and compete all year in different sports, make more friends, travel and just learn so much."
The Villanova students also learn from their experiences, which is why the event continues to grow. While the local delegations turn their attention to winter sports, an estimated 93 percent of the 'Nova student body gets back to work, planning the 2013 Fall Festival, once again opening their campus and their hearts to this very special population.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.