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Volunteers give and get back at Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics

Ravalli Republic - 2/2/2019

Feb. 01--For more than 20 years, students from the Trapper Creek Job Corps have joined dozens of other dedicated volunteers to ensure Special Olympics athletes at the annual Bitterroot Winter games leave with memories that will last a lifetime.

Trapper Creek Jobs Corps' Danny Atkinson said his student volunteers end up getting every bit as much as they give during the two-day event.

For the last four years, Atkinson has made it a point to help lead the young men and women who spend a day or two up on the mountain at Lost Trail/Powder Mountain to help out in whatever they can.

"It puts everything in our life in perspective when you spend a few days up there," Atkinson said.

Service to community has always been a point of emphasis for Trapper Creek Job Corps, but this annual event is something that goes beyond that.

"It's always good for our students to be able to give back to a community that's given them so much," he said. "It's important for them to know what it means to serve other people, but this event teaches them something more. They like to think that their life is rough or they've had it so bad, but when they see these kids and adults who live every day with physical disabilities, it opens their eyes."

Every Trapper Creek Student who helps at the Winter Special Olympics' event receives a shirt. Atkinson likes to ask them what it means to them.

They'll talk about the need to stand up for others or to serve with a willing heart.

"What it really boils down to is that we should not take any one moment in our lives for granted," Atkinson said. "A lot of the people (at Trapper Creek) have had it rough, but a lot of that is self-inflicted. These athletes were born with their challenges and yet they don't let that get in the way of having the right attitude.

"It's in their heart," he said. "They just have this light inside of them. My guys get to see that. They can turn off all their worries and let their lives be changed from the inside out. We love that."

Atkinson said many of the athletes return year after year and they remember the volunteers, coming up to hug them "like we haven't missed a beat."

"If I had a heart and an attitude like them, I would be a better person," he said. "It puts everything in perspective. I love them."

John Harrison of Lolo knows that feeling.

For the past 20 years, he and three generations of his family have volunteered to help ensure the athletes have a nice place to stay and a banquet followed by a dance that makes them feel special.

"I've brought my whole family into this," Harrison said, moments after he'd finished cheering on a group of snowshoe racers. "My kids, my grandkids, they're all into. They look forward to this weekend. It's a like a bad drug, you can't get enough of it.

"Seeing the joy that comes out of these athletes puts my life into a whole different perspective," he said. "It takes all of my self-pity and just crushes it. They are just filled with so much joy no matter what they face."

The 38th annual Bitterroot Winter Special Olympics came to a close Wednesday at Lost Trail/Powder Mountain Ski Hill. The event wouldn't be possible without the hundreds of people who donate their time.

This year 145 athletes competed in downhill skiing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. At least that many volunteers turned out to help in a variety of ways.

"Everyone out here is a volunteer," Harrison said. "All of these people gave of their time without expecting anything in return. We all just wanted to make them smile. We want to make them happy.

"That, in return, makes us all happy, too," he said.

With a medal around his neck and a correctly-folded American flag tucked tightly against his hip, Frank Zepeda of Hamilton was reveling in his victory in a snowshoe race as he watched others climb up on the podium.

"I was very nervous when I started, but now I know I can run with the best," Zepeda said, with a huge smile. "It makes me feel like a champion."

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(c)2019 Ravalli Republic, Hamilton, Mont.

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