BETHANY, W.Va. – For Bethany College sophomore Allison Paxton, helping individuals with special needs is more than a passing interest.
“It is who I am,” she said. “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, in the first grade.”
She called her diagnosis a closely guarded secret because of a desire to be “normal” like those around her.
But now, the student organizer of Bethany College’s first Special Olympics Field Day is sharing her own story with hopes of inspiring others.
“It was difficult because I was afraid of others’ opinions and being stifled by an autistic label,” the psychology major from Canonsburg, Pa., said. “Although, attending Bethany and planning this event has granted me the confidence to be open and honest about the joys and challenges of my diagnosis. I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason.”
The Special Olympics Field Day is 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Thomas Phillips Johnson Health and Recreation Center. Special needs individuals of all ages will learn the fundamentals of soccer, football, volleyball, basketball, golf, track and field, and cross country.
Paxton is a member of the Bethany soccer and track and field teams. College athletes from Bethany and other schools in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference are among the almost 100 volunteers signed up. The Student Activities Council is sponsoring the event.
Register a participating athlete. The event is free and all participants receive a T-shirt.
Paxton is seeking donations to provide needed supplies for all the event’s sports stations, T-shirts and medals for the athletes, and food for the concession stands.
“These athletes mean the world to me, and I want them to know that anything is possible,” she said. “From experience, I’ve learned that there are people out there who consider individuals with special needs as inferior and unable to succeed in life; however, we have the capability to go above and beyond the expectations that are set for us.”
A NATURAL FIT
The Special Olympics event is a natural fit at Bethany, Paxton said.
“People at Bethany love to make a difference in the lives of others,” she said, “and I recognized that we had an amazing opportunity to not only play an influential role in their lives but also to be impacted by them.”
Paxton credits numerous people – from her friends to her mentors – at Bethany College for helping to make her vision a reality.
“The amount of behind-the-scenes work that has gone in to the field day has been astonishing,” she said, noting proposals, letters, flyers, and creating the events planned for the Field Day.
In particular, she credits her adviser, Sam Goodge, executive director for student life.
“He sat in on conference calls, answered emails at all hours of the day, and has taught me valuable skills,” Paxton said. “Without his initial approval and excitement for the event, this Field Day would not have been possible.”
Before hosting the Field Day, Bethany required approval from the national Special Olympics organization. Part of that led to the creation of the Unified Sports Club to signify the relationship with the Special Olympics.
“This union reiterates the value of inclusion,” Paxton said. “In our case, [students and athletes] will be unified at our Special Olympics Field Day as they participate in a multitude of activities and games as one. None of the athletes will ever be or feel alone because they will have someone to support them through every activity.”
It’s not about competition, Paxton added; instead, it’s a time to relax and enjoy the day.
“Some of my favorite memories come from field days in elementary school, because it was a fun, nurturing environment that encouraged me to try new activities,” she said. “When creating this field day, I am hoping to rekindle those same joyful childhood moments in the athletes and volunteers.”
She credits her family and therapists for helping her accomplish what she has.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them,” she said. “If [my family] hadn’t instilled the importance of giving, I don’t believe that would be helping to hold this Field Day. When the challenges of this event have felt too great, they’ve helped me overcome them.”
As vice president for traditions for the Student Activities Council, Paxton said she hopes to make the Field Day an annual event. This year will be a way to find what the participants and the volunteers enjoy most.
“I know what it feels like to feel alone and not special, so if even one participant leaves the event with a renewed confidence in themselves and feels the outpouring of love, then the Field Day will have been worth it,” said.
ABOUT BETHANY COLLEGE
Bethany College, founded in 1840, is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.