KAILUA-KONA — With a torch held high, Special Olympics West Hawaii athlete Byron Pabre, joined by state law enforcement Torch Run director Tom Billins, led a group of volunteers, officers and athletes into Old Kona Airport Park Saturday morning to the sounds of cheers and applause from volunteers and spectators ready for the day’s event.
And on the Flame of Hope igniting the cauldron, this year’s Special Olympics Regional Softball Tournament was officially ready to get underway.
“I think it brings out the best in everybody to be able to give love, give love from the heart,” said Denise Lindsey, Special Olympics West Hawaii area director. “We all have compassion for people, and it’s nice when we can show some love and compassion for everybody.”
This year’s tournament brought out more than 150 athletes from throughout the island who were competing in both unified games and coach-pitch games for the regional tournament in advance of the state Summer Games at the end of next month.
The day of the local tournament coincides with the Troy Barboza Law Enforcement Torch Run, a run/walk that takes law enforcement, athletes and volunteers throughout the streets of Kailua-Kona to raise awareness and funds for the athletes of the Special Olympics in advance of the tournament.
Among the teams preparing to take to the field in the morning was the East Hawaii Explosions. The team included 20 athletes, six unified partners and 10 coaches.
Coach and head of delegation Mayda Iyechad said she’s been coming here with her team since 2007, adding that she enjoys seeing the athletes give the game their all while also enjoying it — a point she emphasizes to her players.
“I tell them to go, do your best, try your best and win or lose, as long as they enjoy the game,” she said.
And for many at the tournament, their involvement in Special Olympics stems from their own experiences with what the games can do for their own loved ones.
Sharon Yong, who does game management for Special Olympics West Hawaii, first got involved in 1995. Her son, she said, used to take part in track and field and bocce.
“At the time, he was in elementary school,” she said, “so I wanted him to be able to socialize with other children, his peers, in some kind of activity. And so I found Special Olympics.”
And by getting him involved in the activity, she said, it benefited her son in ways beyond just helping him physically.
“Just by his reactions, emotions, you can see that he was enjoying it,” she said.
Furthermore, she said, Special Olympics provides opportunities that athletes might not get, such as traveling to Oahu for the State Summer Games, scheduled for the end of May.
Looking around at all the volunteers who contributed to the event, it’s evident how much the mission of Special Olympics resonates with people here.
Yong described it as “friends helping friends,” an idea Lindsey echoed as well.
“West Hawaii — and I’m going to say Big Island in general — are phenomenally giving from their hearts,” Lindsey said.
Likewise, she said, Special Olympics volunteers and athletes love to return the favor by contributing their own time at other events, from passing out water to cheering on other athletes.
“And in general, it’s athletes helping athletes. And that’s what we love,” she said. “And I think the community and our athletes, it’s just a great marriage together.”
That idea of “athletes helping athletes” was well illustrated by the efforts of Kealakehe High School’s Waveriders, who were among the volunteers at Saturday’s tournament. Head Coach Wyatt Nahale said he always felt that if he was given the opportunity to hold the position he has now, he wanted his players and staff to be actively engaged in the community around them.
The tournament marked the program’s first community event since Nahale took charge of the Waverider program. Part of that program and part of his mission, he said, is to give back.
“It’s not only to teach the sport of football, but it’s also the life skills it comes with off the field,” he said. “And part of it is community service and acknowledging your community.”
His student athletes, he said, served as the day’s setup and takedown crew, while also monitoring the water jugs and attending to athletes’ needs throughout the day.
By taking on roles to support the athletes competing in Saturday’s tournament, he said, he hopes that they learn how to be unselfish without expecting anything in return.
“It’s the moral behind it,” he said. “So that way when they become coaches and leaders in our community, they’re going to remember how important it is.”