FORT LEE, Va. -- They were settled on the assumption their son’s enrollment in Special Olympics meant they could take on the role of spectators and watch others collectively develop his abilities in the athletic program for the intellectually or physically challenged.
They were wrong by the length of a metaphoric lap around the track.
“We took him to the first practice, and figured we’d put him out there and let them (the coaches) do their thing while we observed from the bleachers,” said retired Staff Sgt. Andrew Webber, an Ordnance School wheeled vehicle instructor. “Yeah, right … that wasn’t going to happen.”
The couple – his wife is J.D., a paralegal in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate – were moved to action by the face-slapping realization that help was needed.
“You go out there and notice there are only three or four people coaching and taking care of them,” Andrew observed, “And me, having a military mindset, I just couldn’t sit back and watch. So both of us volunteered.”
The Special Olympics includes roughly 30 sporting events for children and adults, with competitions at the local, regional, national and international level. Andrew and his wife support the Colonial Heights chapter that is among 17 locales falling under the James River Region, Special Olympics Virginia.
Once he began volunteering, Andrew gained a deeper appreciation for those who work with the athletes.
“It is an eye-opener to see just how much the coaches, assistant coaches and others put into it,” he said.
Andrew launched his volunteer career with the Colonial Heights chapter roughly six years ago. His participation has grown to roughly 200 hours yearly, helping his autistic son and others develop as athletes and supporting them in other aspects of their lives.
“I think you can say we spend one half of our lives working and the other half on Special Olympics,” said J.D., who contributes administrative and assistant coach services to the cause.
Most of Andrew’s time is spent coaching bocce, a bowling game popular in Europe, but he also acts as an assistant in other sports such as basketball, soccer, bowling, and track and field. When he is not coaching, he and his wife are hosting other events for the athletes.
“Sometimes, we invite the athletes over for barbecue at the house,” said Andrew. “We bring a lot of them over.”
There are about 90 athletes participating in various sports administered by the Colonial Heights chapter.
What motivates Webber and his wife to sustain their participation with the special athletes?
“It’s for him,” said Andrew, referring to his son Alex. “We can do stuff, but they need our help. Without us, (many special needs individuals) would be in group homes doing nothing. We do it for him. Our time is his time.”
Andrew’s commitment to Special Olympics leaves little room for other personal pursuits, but that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. The athletes, he asserted, fill the leisure-time void and give him the satisfaction of contributing to community needs. The prize is the constant streams of gratification.
“You’re seeing the athletes competing, having a good time, getting their ribbons (of participation) and thanking you,” he said. “It’s rewarding.”
Throughout his time with Special Olympics, Andrew said he has learned a second-tier level of patience, noting he has “always been patient” with his son. He also has come to understand how to motivate the athletes as individuals.
“You learn what sets them off (special needs children are easily frustrated if pushed outside of their comfort zone),” he said. “One athlete can go off on something totally different than another athlete, so you always have to be careful.”
In the vein of the type of community service he is performing, Andrew said he fully appreciates how difficult it is to attract volunteers, and he is grateful for the eager participation of advanced individual training Soldiers over the years.
“They’re willing to give up their free time to run with the athletes, play bocce with them and provide motivational support,” he said. “That (community-minded spirit) has just been great.”
The Webbers said they will continue to volunteer with Special Olympics as long as their son shows interest, and they will always be a part of its community regardless.
For additional information about Special Olympics Virginia, to include announcements about upcoming events and support and contribution opportunities, visit specialolympicsva.org.