TWIN FALLS — As Special Olympics athletes stepped to the front of the line to throw the softball, Porter Long cheered them on.

Some managed to throw it only a few feet; others hurled it high. But Long praised every effort.

“I always wanted to get involved,” the Twin Falls food scientist said. “They make you a better person. They make you feel good. It’s a great opportunity for everyone.”

Last year, Long’s employer, yogurt maker Chobani, encouraged workers to volunteer at the Special Olympics’ State Summer Games, held for the first time in Twin Falls. So Long and his wife, Maren, signed up.

Like others before him, Long was hooked.

Now the Longs are among the few volunteers who aren’t parents or caregivers but donate an hour a week helping members of the Twin Falls Tators prepare for the State Summer Games, to be held June 9-10 — again in Twin Falls. In 2016, the event drew an estimated 1,200 athletes from 30 teams.

As the 2017 Games approach, parents and caregivers are prepping athletes — children and adults with intellectual disabilities — for the day of competition. But parents and caregivers can’t put their full attention on coaching while also caring for their children or clients. So Specials Olympics needs other volunteers, too.

Show up this week to watch and cheer at the State Summer Games, and you might be inspired to volunteer.

This week, the Twin Falls Tators’ 38 athletes will compete in two events — a running or walking event such as the 50-yard dash, 100-meter run or 400-meter run — and the softball or tennis ball throw. The Magic Valley Wildcats, another local team, will have eight athletes competing in cycling.

At the Tators’ May 20 workout, a man in a green cap wound back his arm, tossing the softball across the field.

“That’s awesome,” Long said. “I can tell you been practicing.”

After just a year with the Special Olympics, Long is already thinking long term. He’d like to coach a basketball team and has piqued the interest of several Twin Falls Tators athletes. One athlete told Long he’s waited his whole life for a basketball team to form.

When volunteers like the Longs offer to coach, that means the Tators can branch off into new sports.

“It’s helpful,” said Laura Stewart, the Tators’ parent and program coordinator. “They can focus on the events when you’re attached to your child or adult.”

And adding team sports, Long believes, will only strengthen the Tators’ team spirit.

‘It will help them in

their own lives’

Special Olympics couldn’t exist without volunteers, but the people who give their time to drive athletes to practice or cheer at the finish line take something valuable away from the experience.

Terry Kinkead volunteered for Special Olympics at 18, and it changed the direction of her life forever.

“It was the trigger to have me switch from math education to special education,” Kinkead said. “I was going to be a P.E. and math teacher.”

Kinkead — who retired last year as a Special Olympics coordinator for Cassia County and a special education teacher at Burley High School — started working with Special Olympics in Burley after moving there in 1983.

“I’m a past athlete and still love sports,” said Kinkead, who played basketball, volleyball and field hockey in college. “The effort and enthusiasm the (Special Olympics) athletes showed — they worked so hard it made me feel like because I was an athlete I needed to work harder. It made me realize I took a lot for granted.”

The Burley Bobcats team, formed in 1980, initially had eight athletes. Now it has 40, all from towns in the Cassia County School District.

Though spectators won’t see the Bobcats compete in the Summer Games this week — the team is going through a transition with Kinkead’s retirement — they’re still active on the practice field and in regional competitions.

When Kinkead arrived in the 1983, nearly every school district and town in the Magic Valley had its own Special Olympics team.

“We are a school-based program. That’s how it started,” Kinkead said. “The special education teachers were also the coaches. When those duties were compounded with more requirements, a lot of schools, not just in Burley and Cassia County, the teachers said that is too much.”

Luckily, the all-volunteer program has a huge support base among Burley High School students.

“We couldn’t function without them,” she said. “High school kids working with those who have special needs, it will help them in their own lives, whether as a co-worker, community member or employer. Or you never know, it could be in your own family. It educates them, and then they are like ambassadors all over the place.”

Though the Magic Valley’s number of Special Olympics teams has dwindled, Kinkead isn’t discouraged. Many teams are not school-based as they were in the 1980s; now many are formed by agencies or group homes.

Another reason teams have declined in the area: Athletes are busy with other aspects of the community and their lives. And that’s a good thing.

Kinkead saw a former student and athlete she taught 20 years ago in the store recently.

“He’s still in sports, and he’s a father and has children,” she said. “He has a full-time job and goes skiing on the weekends. There is such a range of ability in Special Olympics.”

She credits her former student’s success to Special Olympics.

“Things have just changed, and a lot of athletes now have opportunity to be employed and have other opportunities,” Kinkead said. “Hopefully, Special Olympics has been a vehicle to help them become confident and transition into employment and community sports. Then they can do things more unified with their community, family and church groups. Sometimes Special Olympics is just the starting point and they move on.”

‘He gets along with everybody’

Chris Henbest, 41, started competing for the Twin Falls Tators in his 20s. About the same time, he started the grocery job he still holds.

On May 18, Henbest wore a yellow vest with “Smith’s” in black letters on the back. He quickly grabbed items coming down the conveyor belt, bagging them in brown plastic sacks. The front of the grocery store was loud with the sounds of coins dispensing, bar codes being read and cans hitting each other.

A co-worker in the adjacent checkout line teased Henbest.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” Henbest said.

Henbest’s duties include wrangling carts in the parking lot.

“If they send me out for carts twice, I don’t say no,” Henbest said. “If three times, I can’t get mad or say no.”

Henbest spotted a nearby conveyor belt backing up with groceries. He jumped over and started bagging them for the customer.

He waved to a little girl riding in a cart.

“Bye!” Henbest said. The girl smiled and laughed.

He yelled out to a woman with two children he recognized by the self-checkout line: “Your kids are growing!”

“He’s so funny,” the shopper said to her children as they gathered their grocery bags.

Henbest’s caregiver, Amy Widener, described him as someone who “gets along with everybody.”

“He is very much a leader and family oriented,” Widener said. “I have seen him in my own home and seen him have a great deal of compassion for my daughter and my other client.”

Henbest also has a good work ethic.

In the parking lot, he jogged to and from the store with five carts at a time.

‘I can’t wait to

tell my mom’

Special Olympics is all about teaching confidence, and it couldn’t exist without a supportive community — the same sort of encouragement Twin Falls Tators athlete Bridger Wright, 18, might encounter at a tractor dealership.

“Hey, what are you going to do with Bridgett today?” mother Stephanie Wright said May 13 to Bridger, who wore a College of Southern Idaho cap and a Broncos sweatshirt. The day was cold and gray as clouds built up west of the Vera C. O’Leary Middle School track.

Bridgett Willett is Bridger’s community support worker of five years. The two spend a couple of hours together on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Last year, Willett started picking up Bridger after his Special Olympics practice on Saturdays. When Bridger is with Willett, it gives Stephanie time to do chores or run errands.

“Bridgett takes him to do all the boy things Mom doesn’t have time to do,” Stephanie said.

It’s also a time when Bridger gets to socialize and master new skills on his own.

He has learned to order his own food at McDonald’s and pay for it. He has also learned proper etiquette when going inside stores that have expensive equipment like motorcycles and snowmobiles: You have to ask before you touch. Don’t push their horns inside the building.

“It’s all about independence,” Willett said.

Willett suggested they get lunch, but Bridger wanted to have fun first.

At the Snake Harley-Davidson store, Bridger recognized someone he knew.

“Hey, Rich!” he shouted, making his way to the office in the back.

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“How you doing, big guy?” Rick Asson said, giving him a hug. “Look at you. You’re a man.”

Asson was the first person to give Bridger a ride on a motorcycle. A year later, Bridger hadn’t forgotten the experience.

“He’ll never be able to drive, so this is a way for him to experience that,” Willett said. One time she showed Bridger how to put gas in her car. He tried doing that with his mother’s vehicle but got into trouble; her vehicle took only diesel.

Next, Bridger and Willett visited a store specializing in John Deere farm equipment. Bridger made sure to grab his black backpack containing his seizure medicine before going inside. If he starts having a seizure, Willett has to shoot medicine up his nose. If the seizure doesn’t stop in five minutes, she has to call an ambulance.

Bridger also has a vagus nerve stimulation device implanted in his body. Willett rubs a magnet on it to deliver stimulation to stop the seizures.

When does she know he’s about to have a seizure? He becomes spacey and quiet and says random words, Willett said.

The two walked out back to where gigantic tractors were parked.

“That tire is as big as you,” Willett said.

“Yeah!” Bridger replied.

“Remember, don’t climb up there,” she reminded him. “Just look.”

Bridger wasn’t satisfied with looking. He wanted to ride one. He approached an employee who said he had to ask a manager. A few moments later Opie Kelley walked out the door with a John Deere hat and jacket.

Bridger thanked him for the gifts and immediately put on the hat. He and Kelley hopped into a tractor and did a few laps on a track behind the store.

The tractor stopped halfway around the track, and inside the cab Kelley let Bridger steer.

After the ride, Bridger couldn’t contain his excitement.

“He let me drive!” he exclaimed, grinning.

“That’s awesome,” Willett said.

“I can’t wait to tell my mom,” Bridger said.

‘Brandon’s fast’

The abilities of Special Olympics athletes vary widely. But that does nothing to diminish the competition. Some struggle to best another athlete, some to outdo their own performance.

Members of the Twin Falls Tators huddled on their last day of practice May 20.

“Hey, everybody!” coach Marty Hoffman said. “No more practice after today. You all know that, right?”

He also reminded everyone to watch the weather forecast and bring a jacket and sunscreen to the June 9 opening celebration.

“Also,” Hoffman said, blowing his whistle, “listen up. I don’t want you to get stiff, so walk around the block and pretend you’re competing.”

Everyone held their hands in the air and came together to cheer, “Go Taters!”

After everyone got a turn throwing, those in walking and running sports headed to the starting line on the other side of the track. Five parents, volunteers and caregivers were at the finish line to cheer on the racers.

Brandon Ballard wanted to race his friend, but the friend was too tired.

So Long bounded across the field, his shoulder-length blond hair flowing behind him, to the starting line. Often volunteers race alongside athletes to give them motivation to finish. On the final day of practice, Long gave Ballard the motivation to win.

Long and Ballard were even for the first couple of yards of the 100-meter run, but Ballard started to pull away. Long pressed to keep up. At the finish line, Ballard edged out Long with powerful strides.

Ballard chugged from a Powerade bottle, breathing hard. Long walked slowly back to bleachers, catching his breath with his hands on his hips.

“Been a while since you ran like that?” someone quipped.

“Yup!” Long replied. “Brandon’s fast.”

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