By Steve Jones
When she came to Westminster High School’s Ruby Field on a late April morning, Samantha Murray didn’t know any of the participants in the Special Olympics Carroll County's Spring Games. But it wasn't long before the recent Stevenson University graduate was touched by the Olympians’ effort.
"I was working at the long jump, and one kid ran up to me," said Murray, who played basketball for four years at Stevenson and captained the team last season. "He wasn’t even at the event, but he just wanted to show me his medal. It’s wonderful to see these kids just smile and have fun, and their attitudes are just amazing. Athletes like me can learn a lot from them."
Murray was one of 64 members of the Stevenson community who volunteered their time to measure long jumps and softball throws, record times in the running events, present awards to the winners at the medal stand, and generally support the 165 children and adults from Carroll County. More than 1,000 spectators, including parents, friends, and classmates, were on hand to cheer for the athletes.
"I worked with students with special needs in middle school, and I love helping out in the community," Murray said. "The majority of our basketball team volunteered last year, but we didn’t get to do much then. This year, we wanted to really get active with it."
The staff members and student-athletes from Stevenson, a school of 4,200 students located on the outskirts of Baltimore, were part of a nationwide NCAA Division III initiative to partner with the Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports program for special-needs athletes who are mentally and physically challenged.
Stevenson initially participated in 2012, when 51 members of the Mustangs' athletic department and student-athletes were on hand at Winters Mill High School.
"The Spring Games are volunteer-driven, and Stevenson University had one of the largest groups here" said Sam Hodapp, regional director for Special Olympics Maryland. "The larger groups of volunteers help make this competition happen, and Stevenson was pivotal in both the planning aspect and making the events run smoothly."
A total of 495 events were conducted in a three-hour period. John Plevyak, who organized the school’s participation, was pleased that so many student-athletes were a part of Stevenson’s delegation.
"It’s a special day, and I thought it would be really cool for our athletes to give something back," said Plevyak, who has served as the head men’s soccer coach at Stevenson for the past seven years. "The most satisfying thing for me was to see the joy that the (Special Olympics) athletes showed. Last year, we were mainly spectators, but this time we were actually helping with the events. Our Stevenson athletes were so involved and so encouraging to the participants. The director, Scott Swartz, said that without us it wouldn’t have been as successful."
The Stevenson campus is in Baltimore County, and Plevyak would like to expand the school’s Special Olympics volunteer effort.
"We’ve already been contacted by the Baltimore County Special Olympics for next year," he said. "We’ll still take care of Carroll County, but we plan to branch out into Baltimore County as well."
Wherever the Stevenson contingent winds up next year, Murray will be there. For the next two years, the Reisterstown, Maryland resident will remain at Stevenson as a graduate assistant in the school’s sports information office and continue as a Special Olympics volunteer.
"As an athlete, we sometimes take a lot for granted and get upset over a loss," said Murray. "But you have to be thankful that you’re healthy enough to be able to play the game. I’m glad I got the chance to work with these kids, and I definitely want to stay involved."
For more information on Carroll County Special Olympics, click here.