Out of more than 38,000 volunteers for Special Olympics Texas, two Lewisville residents were recognized for their dedication to volunteering for the statewide athletic competition.
Special Olympics secretary Renae Carswell earned the Volunteer of the Year award and adaptive physical education teacher Jim Domer received the Unified Partner of the Year award. The two, who represent Lewisville ISD, have received honors for the area in previous years, but this year they won on a state level.
Margo Dunaj, an employee of LISD, is a parent to a special needs athlete. She coached within the delegation for 15 years.
“It’s a big state and there are a lot of volunteers,” Dunaj said. “They’re really fixtures with Special Olympics Texas.”
Domer nominated Carswell for Volunteer of the Year.
“All the work she does, I mean tirelessly working,” Domer said of Carswell, “She’s at every activity. She knows all the athletes in our delegation. She is personally involved in all their lives.”
The LISD Special Olympics delegation is made up of about 250 athletes. For the state competition in College Station the weekend of Oct. 14, 90 athletes and volunteers participated. The majority of LISD competitors won medals or awards of some sort, Domer said.
Special Olympics is a recurring competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities or closely related developmental disabilities. Athletes can start competing at age 8 and may continue to compete after they graduate from high school.
In addition to being recognized for their work, Domer and Carswell led the parade of athletes at this year’s Fall Games. Carswell read the volunteer oath at the opening ceremonies.
The competition offers activities and sports for all skill levels. Yet Carswell and Domer agree the biggest challenge in the Lewisville delegation is getting parents to bring their special needs children again. Depending on the disability, the first time competing can be very stressful.
“It’s coming out and giving it a chance, seeing what they can do and don’t give up,” Domer said.
Carswell shared an anecdote from two decades ago about how her peers convinced her to bring her son to a swimming lesson. Because Jason Carswell fell into his uncle’s pool at a younger age, he screamed and scratched and was too afraid to get in the water.
At the time she decided not to do it and left, but the other moms convinced her to try again. She brought him back. Carswell pretended to leave and watched from afar. Jason has since grown to love the sport. Carswell installed a pool in their backyard.
“Just coming back one more time, if they hadn’t convinced me, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said. “He would have never been able to enjoy the pool again.”
Special Olympics is the best thing to ever happen to her and her son, Carswell said. She is able to learn more from the other parents and their experiences than she was able to learn from the schools her son attended, she said.
“The thing I’d like to stress more than anything, it’s a place for parents who don’t really fit in anywhere,” Carswell said. “We all get together and understand each other’s issues.”
Special Olympics allows parents to relax as well as encourages kids to have fun and live life, she said.
“If it wasn’t for Special Olympics, my son would be sitting at home doing nothing with nobody, because they don’t have the network of friends like my daughter has,” Carswell said. Her daughter does not have special needs.
At 9 months old, her son had kidney failure. He took medication until he had a kidney transplant at 3 years old. He was on dialysis, which helps the body perform the functions of a kidney, but suffered a chemical imbalance which caused brain damage.
“So he was actually above average until he was about 3,” Carswell said of her son. “Very hard to accept but then you come to the realization that this is what we’re dealing with, so let’s make the best out of it. And we do, and I can’t imagine him any other way now.”
He is now 32 with limited vocabulary and has been competing in Special Olympics since he was about 8.
For about 10 years, Carswell would cry when she saw her son competing and accomplishing something. She said she manages not to cry anymore.
Domer has been in LISD for 34 years. He has been volunteering with Special Olympics for longer than that. Carswell said he basically helped start the athletic program for special needs students in LISD. Dunaj confirmed Domer started the delegation.
“He actually is the founder of this delegation way back in 1983, when he just got out of college,” Dunaj said. “He’s never had a disabled child and yet here he is, 30 something years later still doing it.”
Domer said he and a few other teachers from Delay Middle School developed sports and other activities for the special needs students. He now works as an adaptive physical education teacher for 12 different schools.
“They just grew from a handful of 30 people to over 250 within LISD, and there’s still a lot that we haven’t reached,” Domer said.
He put together a unified softball team, a mixture of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities, when LISD’s team was short players. He enjoyed being able to play softball with his son Allen, a special education teacher at Colony High School who was named Unified Partner for the area this year.
“[The games] give our students an avenue to go out to compete in a sport, to be part of everyday life, what other students are able to do, what they see on TV,” Domer said.
Another challenge is funds. The past weekend’s games cost over $13,000 for a two-night stay, Domer said.
“Every bit of money that’s donated to us goes straight back to the athletes,” he said. “It takes a lot of money to continue an organization like ours, not charge any of our athletes a single penny.”
Domer said they ask for a $30 entry fee for athletes going to state because that’s what the state asks for. “That goes straight to the state. We don’t get any of that.”
The fall golf tournament is their biggest fundraiser and they have smaller ones throughout the year to supplement. Those wishing to make a donation can contact Domer at firstname.lastname@example.org . Donations qualify for a tax deduction.