Helping the disabled attain gold


Maureen Melba McCarthy wants to make sure Howard County's nearly 3,000 developmentally disabled residents get a chance to compete for Olympic gold.

The 29-year-old Columbia woman, a county parks and recreation therapeutic director, volunteered to become the area director for the Howard County Special Olympics in October. The post had been vacant for 18 months.

When Director Ellen Roper resigned to concentrate on her duties at the Cedar Lane School, the White Marsh-based Maryland Special Olympics temporarily operated the county chapter.

"With her [Ms. McCarthy's] enthusiasm and direction for the Howard County Special Olympics, that's going to enable all of us to reach the many potential athletes that are in that area," said Miriam Weinstein, director of public relations for the Maryland Special Olympics. "Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization, and she's an example of the incredible volunteer corps that we have here."

Ms. McCarthy, who operates the county Special Olympics from the basement of her home, volunteered for the position when she heard about the opening.

Her duties will complement her full-time job with the county recreation and parks. She works with seven physically disabled youngsters at Oakland Mills High School.

That experience makes her more than qualified for her new position, Ms. McCarthy said. She said she knows how to champion youngsters who are sometimes discouraged from certain activities.

Ms. McCarthy also can relate to people who are developmentally disabled. When she was 2, doctors thought she had a bone tumor in one of her legs and that she wouldn't be able to walk. But later they learned she had a form of arthritis, and she worked to strengthen her leg.

Sports are for everyone, regardless of who they are, Ms. %J McCarthy said. "In sports, everyone can compete as long as we provide them from the beginning levels to the highest levels."

Two months after taking over, Ms. McCarthy is settling into her position, learning the group's history and the operation. Her goal is to make the county chapter vibrant again.

A way to do that is to get more of the county's estimated 3,000 disabled residents involved, she said. About 200 children and adults now participate.

She's looking for participants and volunteers for the Howard County Special Olympics Spring Games May 6 -- track and field at Atholton High School and aquatics at Howard Community College.

"I am hoping that I will have twice as many as they had two years ago," Ms. McCarthy said. There were at least 100 participants in that last county competition, held before Ms. Roper resigned.

The key to the athletes' success is a 10-week training program. The gold medal winners will advance to the state games in June in Towson.

"Even if they don't make the gold, they can cross the finish line and say, 'I did it,' " Ms. McCarthy said. "And that's a big deal for some of these guys."

More than 6,500 people from 130 countries will compete in the World Summer Games in New Haven, Conn., in July. It is being promoted as the world's largest sporting event.

The international program of year-round sports training and competition for physically and mentally handicapped children and adults was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

The program, modeled on the mainstream Olympics, gives participants a chance to develop physical fitness, boost their self-image and experience courage and joy.

The county's chapter dates back at least to the late 1970s, according to published reports. During the 18 months that the chapter was without a director, county residents participated in other counties' Special Olympics programs.

Volunteers and fund raising are two essential ingredients for a strong chapter, Ms. McCarthy said. It costs $1,200 per athlete for expenses including uniforms, equipment, food and awards.

Though she has 20 volunteers, Ms. McCarthy said more are needed to coach the athletes and help with paperwork and other aspects of the organization.

The volunteer work is fulfilling, two volunteers said.

"It's one way to get some self-fulfillment in life vs. making a buck for a company," said public relations volunteer Rick Schonbachler. And Ms. McCarthy's mother, Melba, whom she recruited as the group's secretary, said: "The look on the athletes' faces when they have been able to do something like this . . . is heart-warming, uplifting and inspiring."

To volunteer, call 995-5018.

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