Volunteer Spotlight: Winkler Wizzards

The idea of holding Special Olympics first entered the public mind in 1968 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver held the very first event at Soldier Field in Chicago. From there, engagement with the idea grew around the world to offer those with disabilities a chance to train, compete, and ultimately have a place to belong in the world of organized sports and recreation. Sharon Dueck is the head coach of the Winkler Wizzards Special Olympics Club and has seen the tremendous benefits of the organization within the community over the last thirty-three years. It is an opportunity for people with disabilities to enjoy opportunities to have fun, compete, travel, and most importantly have a place to be accepted and build genuine friendships.

The first Special Olympics club came to Winkler in 1986 through Sharon Dueck and Marlee Wiebe, with help from a group of young adults and high-school students who came together as the first coaches and volunteers. Sharon worked with special needs students in the school system and had always been passionate about seeing people with disabilities be given opportunities to reach their full potential. One day, when a letter came through the school from the head office of Special Olympics Manitoba, she took immediate interest. “I just saw the letterhead and asked if I could read that letter” said Sharon, who was consequently informed about a regional meeting that was coming up. She saw that this was a way to provide those people with disabilities, who were no longer in school a place to participate in recreational activities, as at that time there was nothing designed for them. Sharon and Marlee recruited their friend groups and together started the Special Olympics club. “The first year was a track and field program and a basic gym program,” said Sharon. “Right off the bat we had between thirty to forty athletes sign up” With the dozen coaches who also signed up, the program gained immediate traction and the message was sent that there were many people in the community who were interested. “Since then, we’ve expanded to providing competitive opportunities in Track and Field, Bocce, Basketball, Snowshoeing, and Baseball.” More recently, the club has added Rhythmic Gymnastics within a recreational setting. The school division has provided the club with the Winkler Elementary School gym, along with its gym equipment for the last thirty-three years. As a thank-you, the club participates in a walk-a-thon fundraiser every spring, donating the proceeds to the school’s gym program.

“We’ve had strong community support,” said Sharon, as parents of athletes took the initiative in raising funds for the program, along with Gateway Resources and local businesses continually helping when there was a need. “To this day, if we ever need anything we just need to ask” said Sharon about the continued support the club has received throughout their history, of which they are incredibly thankful for.

More clubs would branch off or start in the community following suit including a Ten-pin Bowling club, and a Golf program, while other communities that have started clubs include Altona, Carman, and Morden with varying sports being offered.

A core group of volunteers has helped lead the Winkler club from the beginning, including Sharon and her husband Don, Connie Driedger and Glenn and Anna Wieler, along with other volunteers, many of who have been involved over the last decade. The core group has also passed on this love to their kids, as each of them now has kids of their own, involved in helping lead the club. “I always say that if you come in to volunteer, you should expect to stay awhile, as people don’t want to leave,” said Sharon, “they really enjoy spending time with our athletes.”

While Covid-19 has put a stop to current activities, they would normally run a gym night on Mondays out of Winkler Elementary School, a place to train for competitions, starting with the regional event, then moving up to provincials, nationals, and finally the international stage. While competitions are held each year, there is Summer Games held every four years which serves as the qualifying round to move up to the national games. “We’ve had numerous athletes that have competed nationally and internationally with success.

For many athletes, the freedom of not having to keep up or fit in with others makes the events extra special, as it is a place where they can simply be themselves and be celebrated for who they are. “So many times’ we see the parents wiping tears because their kids are being successful” said Sharon “the love at those events is very real.”

The club is looking forward to meeting again when possible, even if it is only in a casual setting to play Bocce or Baseball in the summer. Parents interested in seeing if the club would be a fit for their child are encouraged to come to check it out when up and running and can reach Sharon at 204-362-1293 and can also visit their Facebook page under the name Winkler Wizzards.

If you would like to donate, please visit specialolympics.mb.ca for details.