Special Olympics Oregon, the parent of about 30 local programs across the state, including High Desert Special Olympics in Deschutes and Crook counties, has had its share of difficulties recently. It’s had serious financial problems the last three years, so much so that it has, in the last few months, laid off staff, canceled the annual statewide summer games, and, this fall, opted not to hold any fall or winter trainings or competitions unless they can be accomplished for free.

As a Special Olympics mom and sometime volunteer, the news caught me by surprise. While I suspected the program is not cheap, in part because of my own involvement with it, I had some of the same misconceptions I think most of the public has.

Special Olympics is expensive, not because it has a large, highly paid staff but because of what it does and how it does it. Overall, it offers 30 sports, though not all at once and not all in Oregon. Athletes must train for six weeks at least, with coaches and other assistants always nearby.

No athlete is ever charged to play. Equipment and uniforms are provided, transportation is provided to some sites, and space, if it must be rented, is free to athletes. All competitors need do is show up, try their best and enjoy themselves.

Special Olympics provides equipment and everything else that’s needed. While there’s always a push to have things donated, some must be purchased by the local or state organization.

Thus, a local bowling alley donates the use of shoes to all Special O bowlers, but the High Desert folks rent the lanes. If skiers must have lift tickets at Mt. Bachelor and they haven’t been donated, again, Special O picks up the tab. And so on.

Expenses go way up if a team travels. Teams travel by bus, and even school buses can prove expensive. Drivers may be on duty only so long; in some cases that means more than one driver must be hired, and there’s a rental cost for buses on top of that. Meals are provided as well. Overnight trips involve more drivers, more meals and the added expense of housing.

While a trip may involve only athletes in one sport, it can take two school buses to get athletes, coaches, chaperones, equipment, water, snacks and so on there and back, if the sport is popular. Add to that lunch at the competition and a meal on the way home for 80 or more people, and you’re talking real money.

This all-for-free policy is both what makes Special Olympics great and what makes it expensive. Were there costs to athletes, too many of the men, women and children who participate each season would quickly be priced out of the market. And if all the fundraising were left to local programs, some might not survive a year.

The latter is particularly true in a program so driven by volunteers as Special Olympics is. Serious fundraising is hard and time-consuming work, and many Special O volunteers hold down full-time jobs and have families to tend to. The combination doesn’t leave much time for asking people if they’d be willing to help out a worthy cause.

That said, High Desert Special Olympics is having a fundraiser Wednesday. It’s planning an evening of bingo at Wild Ride Brewing, 332 SW Fifth St., in Redmond. The event kicks off at 6:30 p.m.

Even without regional and state competition, even without sports that cannot be played for free, local Special Olympians will have plenty to do this year. Our athletes may not be bowling, to be sure. But for my daughter Mary, the lack of bowling means she’ll be able to swim, a sport she also loves. For that we can thank the Athletic Club of Bend, which has generously allowed Special Olympics to use its pool this fall. Others will be playing bocce, currently the most popular sport in Special Olympics, here, statewide and around the country. I expect they’ll have other sports to choose from this winter and next spring.

I suspect Special Olympics Oregon will be up and operating as usual quickly. Those who work for Special O and those who volunteer all know what a truly special program it is and will work to restore it to health.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, jstevens@bendbulletin.com .

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