8 years ago, Lilly Ellenbecker was handed a flyer with information on different Special Olympics sports that might be of interest to her daughter, Hannah. Ultimately, Lilly chose roller skating and registered Hannah for the local team.
24 years prior, Diane Crawford was working in a jewelry store in upstate New York when an older woman with an intellectual disability, Nettie, came into the store and asked for a hug. That hug turned into an invitation to a Special Olympics bowling practice; that bowling practice turned into a roll as a volunteer coach; that roll as a volunteer coach turned into a lifetime of involvement in Special Olympics for Diane.
Later, after moving down to Virginia for family reasons, Diane quickly found the local Special Olympics roller skating program. For 10 years now, this program has been an integral part of Diane’s life - and hundreds of athletes’ lives in the Virginia Beach area. Athletes like Hannah, who has grown up and flourished thanks to her involvement in Special Olympics.
Coach Diane described a timid Hannah when she started out on the team. “Hannah was so quiet at first. I couldn’t get her to talk to me, let alone meet my eye.”
Hannah’s mom, Lilly, echoed the same sentiment. “You feel very alone sometimes having a child with a disability. Going into it, Hannah was pretty reserved, I felt pretty reserved, and my husband was, too.”
It didn’t take long, though, for the Ellenbecker family to feel the warmth of the Special Olympics community.
“You constantly hear what your child can’t do, but at Special Olympics it was all about celebrating what Hannah could do,” Lilly said. “I think she opened up almost immediately.”
For Hannah, Special Olympics also provides an opportunity for her to engage socially. In fact, her favorite part of Special Olympics is “making new friends.” She’s not only been able to connect with people her own age, but she’s formed close bonds with her adult coaches, too.
“It’s really nice that she’s been able to have relationships with adults outside of myself and my husband,” Lilly said. “I think it’s helped her gain confidence in other social settings.”
Once a timid athlete, Hannah is now a glowing example of the power of a team. And it all begins when she arrives at practice each week and gets a hug from Coach Diane.