CHIPLEY - For the first time in the nearly 50 years since the Special Olympics was founded, the organization is coming to Washington County.

After about a year preliminary behind-the-scenes work, the Washington County Special Olympics Committee last week received approval from Special Olympics Florida to launch the program here. Washington County will join the ranks of neighboring Holmes, Jackson, and Bay counties in hosting local events, with committee members hoping the counties can eventually began local regional competitions that could lead to the state level.

But committee spokeswoman Jean Hughes says the purpose of the organization goes far beyond a little friendly competition.

"The ultimate goals of Special Olympics Florida is to help people with intellectual disabilities participate as productive and respected members of society at large by offering them a fair opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills and talents through sports training and competition, and by increasing the public’s awareness of their capabilities and needs," said Hughes. "Along the way, athletes will gain new experiences and forge new friendships, as well as have the opportunity to improve their physical health."

Participants will be able to compete according to skill level, with spots open to anyone diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, regardless of age or whether the athlete is able to walk or run or utilizes a wheelchair, walker, or crutches.

Special Olympics is an organization near and dear to Hughes, whose daughter, Savannah Wilson, competed in events such as basketball through the program from about age 7 until just weeks before she passed away a few years ago at age 24.

Savannah suffered a heart condition at birth, which caused strokes and led to intellectual challenges. Hughes was told her daughter would not live beyond the age of 5.

"I've seen first-hand the positive effect Special Olympics can have," she said. "Savannah lived for the friendship and the competition. She would be up at 5 a.m. on the day of an event and tell us. 'It's game day!' Later, when she became ill and was hospitalized, friends she had made over the years - even those with whom she competed - came to visit. There is a bond formed between these athletes like no other."

There will be a launch party held for the event, with the date and time still to be announced. The first series of events will be track and field competitions which will include a 50-year walk, 100-yard walk, and softball throw.

"We hope we can get the ARC involved, even if the clients simply want to come out and cheer for their favorite athlete," said Hughes.

This organization depends on the generosity of its community, both through sponsorships and volunteering. All volunteers must undergo a background check through Special Olympics Florida.

"When you volunteer, you join an international family of people from all walks of life who gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for people with intellectual disabilities through your participation," said Hughes. "Special Olympics have already provided a gateway of understanding, learning, sense of belonging and socialization to many of our Washington County families. These families had to look outside the county for these activities, and now these families can stay close to home, as well as the athletes can represent their own community through competition."

To get involved, contact the County Director, Dawn Veit at dfr12dawn@aol.com

For more information on how to get involved go to: http://specialolympicsflorida.org/get-involved/