Having served as Chairman of Area 26 Special Olympics for over a year and being involved for nearly nine years, Bill Ogletree knows the importance of giving back to his community. With over 1,000 Special Olympians in the area – which encompasses all of Fairfax County, Arlington County, and the City of Alexandria – Ogletree has to find time and space to help the athletes “develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills and friendship,” according to the organization’s website.
But because the Special Olympics cannot charge any participation or spectator fees for its events, its livelihood relies on the generosity and support of local organizations to sponsor practices and competitions.
“The challenge that we have is identifying and locating the facilities that are needed for training and for competitions,” Ogletree said. “In a lot of cases, we have to pay for those training facilities and for folks to be involved.”
That’s where Fairfax County comes in. Every week, the county reserves time and space so that the athletes may have use of the best facilities and instruction available. High schools volunteer gym time for basketball athletes, and local soccer fields are frequently set aside for use by these Olympians.
“There’s a long list” of Special Olympics backers, said Tim Hartle, an Area 26 council member who has long-standing affiliations with the organization. “Quite a few people are involved in the Special Olympics.”
One local organization, Burke Lake Golf Course, is especially active in its support of the Special Olympics. Every Saturday during the spring and summer seasons, Burke Lake allows the 30 or so Special Olympics golfers to practice on the driving range and its 18-hole, par-3 course. The spring season is more of a prelude to the summer session, which begins the first week of August and lasts through the first week of November.
“Burke Golf Course specifically has always been amenable to us, bringing the kids there and using the facilities,” Hartle said. “They make room for us at the driving range for practice on Saturdays, and once or twice a year they open the course up to threesomes to actually play nine holes of golf.”
And the course provides all its services – from using of the driving range to hands-on, professional instruction – free. It’s a way for Burke Lake to assist local intellectually-handicapped individuals and their families, while providing support for the organization that enhances the quality of life for so many of those individuals.
“I really enjoy teaching [the athletes],” said John Melanson, a certified golf instructor and the staff professional for Northern Virginia Special Olympics golfers. “It’s one of the most fun classes I’ve [taught].”
“It’s very fortunate that we found [a resource] like Burke Lake,” Ogletree said. “They’ve been extremely gracious to us in providing the facilities free of charge… and that we have the professional instruction that provides the training that’s needed for our athletes so that they’re well-prepared to compete.
“The people that I’ve dealt with there, Louis Musolf and John Melanson, [they] are what makes it successful,” he added. “The people we interact with, they really do see that the folks that compete in Special Olympics are out there competing just as hard as they are in sports activities.”
The partnership between the Special Olympics and Burke Lake Golf Course has lasted since 2001 because of their shared passion for volunteering time and resources toward a greater cause. And as long as this spirit of giving back persists, Special Olympics athletes will always have a support system in Fairfax County.