By Emily Blackner
Elm Staff Writer
Trading name tags and polos for numbers and athletic gear, Washington College dining hall employees Kiri Less, AJ Blake, and Tammy McGinnis compete in a variety of sporting events as Maryland Special Olympics athletes.
The Special Olympics is an international program designed for people with intellectual disabilities. It provides them with opportunities to learn various sports, connect with other people, and gain confidence and determination.
The Maryland chapter additionally hopes to instill values such as sportsmanship, friendship, community, integrity, and opportunity while providing athletes with training and instruction for a lifelong enjoyment of sports.
Skills such as cooperation, hard work, and perseverance that are learned through the program transfer from the stadium to the dining hall and help make the athletes effective employees. Their interactions with fellow athletes also help prepare them to interact with students. Director of Dining Services Donna Dhue said “Lots of the students know AJ and Kiri, and many times you see them enjoying lunch with the students.”
These benefits mean that there are Special Olympics programs in many U.S. states, as 25-year-old Kiri Less knows. She traveled a lot as a kid, but no matter where she lived she kept with the program. “Bowling is my favorite [sport],” Less said, but she also competes in basketball, bocce, athletics, and powerlifting.
“I have a coach. We train for a couple of months,” she said of her powerlifting routine. She started that sport in the fall of 2004, and it took her to the national games in 2007 and 2010.
During the 2010 games, held in Lincoln, Neb. this July, Less and 36 other Maryland team members competed in a variety of events. Less won second place in the women’s deadlift competition and third in the bench press. Her combined performance in both of those events earned her third place overall.
“I like winning medals, gold and silver,” Less said with a smile. She also enjoyed meeting with other athletes from around the country and trading the state pins they are all given. “Kiri is very insightful and when something is not working or is out, she makes us aware,” said Dhue.
When not training or working in the dining hall, Less enjoys doing puzzles. She is also active at Trinity Lutheran Church, located across the street from campus, where she helps with the Sunday School program. “It helps [the kids],” she said.
WC students have no doubt seen Adrian Blake, also known as AJ or ‘The Mayor’ around the dining hall. “He’s happy all day long,” Dhue said. “It’s very nice to be around him.”
He is always willing to say hello and greet students with a fist bump. This friendliness is also apparent at the Kent Center, where he trains for the Special Olympics.
The 25-year-old has been involved with the Special Olympics for three years. He competes in bowling and the 5K run. “That is very fun,” he said. He also “just started weight lifting,” which he is very excited about.
He is also excited about gaining new responsibilities at WC. “AJ now works two shifts in the dishroom in the evening, and he enjoys doing a different job. He likes to put the dishes in the machine,” Dhue said.
Blake loves to play video games in his spare time. “I like basketball and soccer games,” he said.
Tammy McGinnis, 35, is a very hard worker. “Tammy has the dishroom down,” said Dhue. Her shift in the dining hall lasts from 9:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., and then she travels to her second job. If this was not enough, she also finds time to participate in the Special Olympics.
“I’ve been doing it a long time,” McGinnis said. During the summer, she spends time kayaking, and currently she is doing powerlifting. McGinnis also swims and bowls. “All of them are my favorite,” she said.
“Practice is important,” she said, and for her it has certainly paid off. McGinnis won “three ribbons, red, yellow, and blue” at recent events.
McGinnis’s competitions allow her to travel around the state. “She takes Friday off to go to events,” Dhue said. For example, McGinnis visited Towson recently. When she returns to Chestertown, McGinnis loves to share her awards with friends and coworkers. “There’s a real sense of accomplishment,” said Dhue.
McGinnis is also very active at the Kent Center. She enjoys participating in the Goose Bump Jump, a fundraiser that usually takes place in November. “It’s like the Polar Bear Plunge in Baltimore,” Dhue said.
When asked what her favorite part about being a Special Olympian was, McGinnis responded, “Everything.”
This is the cheerful, upbeat at- titude that these athletes bring to campus.
“They are great workers, and they bring smiles, smiles and more smiles,” said Dhue. “They are happy to be here, and a smile goes a long way to our customers and to other employees.”