Before moving to Miami last summer, Palmetto High School junior Ryan Fitzgerald had already put in two years volunteering with the Special Olympics in Exeter, New Hampshire.
“It lasted about three months,” he says. “Two practices a week and two big meets by the end of the year.”
Those events included the divisional meets and then the New Hampshire state meet for the athletes.
“I’d like to do it here in Miami,” Fitzgerald says.
He followed in his sister’s footsteps – she helped train a Special Olympics athlete. When his sister graduated from high school, Fitzgerald took over and coached the same athlete she had worked with.
“One year I worked with a specific athlete and led him to the state meet,” Fitzgerald says.
“And the next year I worked with another athlete who medaled in a few races in the state meet.”
Fitzgerald says they initially worked mainly on walking or running.
“After that, we would spend about an hour two times doing a specific event like the softball throw or the standing jump,” he says. “We would support them or push them to keep trying.”
While it was a lot of work, Fitzgerald says working with the Special Olympics was probably one of his favorite things to do during those two years. He also learned from the experience.
“I learned that I can help others and that there is a great reward helping others through things like that,” he says.
One of the motivations for him to become involved is that fact that he has an aunt with special needs.
“There were a ton of athletes and a ton of students,” he says. “It was great to spend time, even an hour a day two days a week. It was the highlight of their day. It was great to get their confidence up because a lot of them were scared. It feels good for the students to help out.”
The program included special needs athletes from elementary school to seniors.
“One guy was like 75 years old,” he says.
“We had the biggest program in the state.”
Since Fitzgerald is a track-and-field athlete himself, he found his experiences helpful in working with the Special Olympics athletes. He’s a sprinter specializing in 100 and 200 meter races, and he was a good enough to go to the Division One state meet in New Hampshire.
He placed in the 200 meter race, and the 4×100 relay team medaled.
Along with his athletic skills, Fitzgerald also is a musician. He plays trumpet in the Palmetto marching band and concert band. The marching band played at football games and parades, and went to a marching band showcase. The band received a superior or top rating at an evaluation. The concert band performed at DisneyWorld and at the state evaluations where it received excellent ratings from the Florida Bandmasters Association.
One of the advantages of moving to Miami during the summer was that Fitzgerald missed one of the worst winters ever in the northeast. He says that all his friends in New Hampshire were complaining about how much snow they had this year.
— By Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld