Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena is a big place. For a concert or a basketball game, it can seat more people — 8,700 — than live in most Alaska communities

Special Olympics Alaska needed a big place the night all the volunteers gathered for a final farewell. More than 6,000 volunteers had helped put on the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games, and the party, thrown a month after the Games ended, was a way to thank them all.

Not all of them were there, of course. Michael Frieser, the volunteer head of all the volunteers, said that people had come from all over to help.

“I’ve got people from Florida, from New Hampshire, from Boston, people who have come in to volunteer,” he said during the Games.

Special Olympics 2Most had come from Anchorage, though, and other parts of Alaska, and many had turned out for hamburgers, ice cream and a few speeches. But what most of them seemed to be there for was a chance to relive, one last time, the enjoyment they’d gotten from their efforts.

“I wish it wouldn’t end. It just wouldn’t. I love it,” Jeffrey Friedman, a volunteer from New Jersey, had said during the Games. “I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

Special Olympics came about due to the efforts of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was, beginning in the 1960s, a crusader for the rights of the disabled and what were then called the mentally retarded.

“The genesis of Special Olympics was a summer day camp that Sargent and Eunice Shriver started in the backyard of their Maryland home,” Special Olympics Alaska’s web site says. “In July 1968, the world witnessed the first International Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in Chicago.”

Special Olympics 3Special Olympics Alaska began in 1968 as well, and today it “provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for people eight years of age and older with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”

The benefits of Special Olympics to the athletes are easy to see. As detailed by a Canadian snowshoer named Jack Hess, they are, “The thrill of winning. Competition. The many friends that I met.”

special2The benefits to the families are clear as well, seen in the way the athletes deal with life. “It just changed her life,” Erika Van Steelant said of what Special Olympics had done for her daughter, Leaha. “She has a focus. She has an ambition.”

But the benefits to the volunteers are not quite so obvious. We often think of volunteers as people who give something, and they are. But, clearly, Special Olympics volunteers get something, too. What they get, if they are like the volunteers at the 7th World Winter Games, is good feelings: about themselves, about helping, about the world at large.”Oh, it was fantastic,” said one of them, Greg Mann, said at the party at the arena. “Everyone was so positive.”

This moves Special Olympics out of the realm of charity, of a system that has givers and getters, and into the realm of mutual benefit. Everyone involved seems to get something good from Special Olympics, even those who, like me, only stand and watch. How many things can you say that about?