One of the most common descriptions of persons with intellectual disabilities is that so they express emotions so freely. Despite the challenges facing friends and families, caregivers are often rewarded with an outpouring of unconditional love, shared unapologetically and unabashedly.
And while Orange County Special Olympics Coordinator Colleen Lanigan is bathed in the adoration, the love for her and what she does for the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department extends beyond the athletes, parents, and volunteers with whom she works.
The community is now showing its unconditional love for Lanigan, who has worked with the Special Olympics for 22 years, 17 as Orange County Coordinator. Lanigan was announced as the 2012 Cal Horton Service Award winner by Town Manager Roger L. Stancil in December, and a formal presentation of the award will be later this month.
Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation director Butch Kisiah said people feel passionately about Lanigan because of her own passion for what she does.
Her coaches will do anything for her, Kisiah said. She makes people both appreciate what theyre doing and feel appreciated for what theyre doing.
My son Ewan has been in Special Olympics for almost 15 years, said Shau-Hong Toscano, the parent of a Special Olympics athlete. Colleen has been directly responsible for improving the quality of his life, providing Ewan with exercise, fun, companionship, and a more normal life. She so deserves to be recognized for her organizational skills, her compassion, and the joy she has brought to the lives of Special Olympic athletes and their families.
Shes wonderful. Special Olympics athlete Darrell Schwartz said. She does a lot for the program, and Ive known her for a long time. Shes always smiling, and shes fun.
The award is one of the highest honors Chapel Hill bestows upon an employee one typically reflecting the ideals of public service. Winners receive a plaque and a cash stipend.
After the Foundation for a Sustainable Community Inc. raised funds in 2006 to honor the career of Cal Horton, the 16-year Town Manager asked that the funds be used to honor town employees. Past award recipients include Larry Stroud (2008), Jim Huegerich (2009), Maggie Burnett (2010), and Nate Davis (2011).
Colleens award marks two years in a row that someone from Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation has won this award, Kisiah said proudly.
I was floored, Lanigan said of the news. The awards only been around a few years, and I figured they wouldnt give it to Parks and Recreation twice, Lanigan said. When I knew Nate had won last year, I figured that was that.
As Coordinator for the Orange County Special Olympics (North Carolina sets up programs by county), Lanigan administers year-round athletic events for an entire population of local athletes with intellectual disabilities, ranging in age from five to adult.
Lanigan said program has grown by leaps and bounds since she first began with Chapel Hill.
I came on board to go out and recruit volunteers, she said. My first soccer season, we had 26 people thats athletes and coaches. Now
I have seven different sports in the fall, each with tons of participants. I dont know how many there are, but when I walk out to Finley soccer fields and look around, Im like, Holy cow, who are all of these people? It looks like a million people out there from little kids to adults.
There are about 1,000 athletes and about 300 volunteers involved, and folks are so appreciative of what she does, Kisiah said.
Lanigan is quick to credit her parents and volunteers with the programs ability to handle exponential growth and added that those who do invest often remain invested.
There are quite a few people that have been doing this just as long as I have, she said. Ive known coaches who have gotten married through the program, and there are coaches kids whove literally grown up on the sidelines of our events.
These volunteers get even more out of it than theyre putting into it, Kisiah said, but you often have to get involved to understand that.
Still, with all the commitment and volunteerism available, it takes a person with Lanigans energy and passion to pull it all off, Kisiah explained.
Special Olympics is a wonderful outlet for those with disabilities, and its a well-organized program, he said, but here in Chapel Hill, were especially fortunate to have Colleen running it, because she puts absolutely everything into it.
Ive regularly seen her with vans at 4 oclock in the morning, and shes pretty much running a one-person operation. Its not only (coaching): its organizational finding volunteers, raising money, putting together teams.
I have no idea how she lives. I dont even know when she sleeps, Special Olympics volunteer coach Jonathan Wilson said. If shes not at work, she doing something for Special Olympics somewhere. She spends so much time with some of the Special Olympics athletes, theyre like her second family.
But Lanigans demonstrated passion isnt about giving so much to the Special Olympics. Its simply about giving.
A couple years ago, when I had 20 years with the program, my staff took up a collection and sent me on a vacation to Ecuador, she said, laughing. I volunteered in a daycare center there, which ticked them off. They wanted me to go to a beach and lay around.
Lanigan foresees additional growth for Special Olympics in Chapel Hills future.
If you have a child with a disability or autism, you come here, she said. There are residential placements, school systems set up to handle this, and families move here for that.
If Lanigan seemed undaunted by the prospect of further growth or working hands-on with thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities what, finally, scares her?
My office is a disaster, she said, laughing, And its all logistical things: paperwork, medical forms, registration deadlines. It boggles the mind. Volunteers want to teach tennis or teach swimming, but no one wants to come in and file for hours.
Lanigan apparently needs another part-time Lanigan, only younger.
I need a 25-year oldabout the age I was when I started, she said.
Challenges for such a position are self-evident, but the reward is love without filters, without reservation, and without limits.
I love the energy of the practices and tournaments, Lanigan said. People are happy and in a good place, and youre bringing that to participants and their families.
Honestly, if retired tomorrow, in a month, Id be volunteering with my program. I might not work the hours I do now or the fundraising and the administration, but I love the people: thats where the party is; thats where the fun is.
And the people, apparently, love Colleen Lanigan right back.
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