Pam Lyn King knows first hand what life is like for a special-needs family. Her younger sister, Kristol, was born with Down syndrome and autism. When Kristol died three years ago at age 20, King felt a profound void that she wasn’t sure how to fill.
Landing a new job as an administrative specialist in the communications department of Kaiser Permanente in 2014 opened her heart in ways she didn’t think was possible. Kaiser’s Rose Parade float that year celebrated the Special Olympics and King was in charge of locating athletes to ride on the float. She worked with the families to organize their trip to Pasadena, stayed with them for four days prior to the parade and rode on the float with them.
When the Rose Parade and all the planning came to an end, she knew she wanted to do more. She called the Santa Clarita Valley/Tri-Valley Special Olympics and asked how she could help. Two weeks later she was a volunteer coach for a track team in Glendale. She now coaches three teams and is on the executive leadership council.
You coach track, soccer and basketball. What made you want to devote so much time to volunteering with the Special Olympics?
These athletes bring so much joy to my life. They are the most selfless, loving and hard working group of athletes you’ll ever meet. During the Special Olympics World Games last summer, I ran in a half-marathon with the athletes and I was having a really hard time keeping up and I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t think I could do it. But then I thought about my sister and I saw how hard my team was pushing themselves, and I kept going. They kept me going. These athletes are an incredible inspiration.
How has the Special Olympics become a part of your family?
Many times, special-needs families feel very alone and secluded. We have a very close family and we have our church community that keeps us strong. Community connections are so important. My parents now come to every one of my team’s events – track meets, soccer games – to cheer the athletes on. They have gotten to know the athletes and it has become a great community for them as well. It’s nice to know that you’re not alone, that there are other families out there just like you. It keeps you positive and not stuck in the “poor me” syndrome.
Do you have to be an athlete to be a volunteer coach?
Absolutely not. I didn’t play sports growing up. I was into music and theater. You learn as you go. At first, it can feel overwhelming because you have never done anything like this before. But you’ll figure it out. You will gain so much from this. I have learned to be gracious, patient and accepting.
What qualifications do you need to be a Special Olympics volunteer?
An open heart. You need to be accepting and willing to make a difference. What these athletes need are love and compassion. Sometimes, we’re afraid when we see someone with special needs. We don’t know what to say or do. But, all you have to do is show your love. Some of these athletes don’t have anyone cheering them on. All you have to do is show up and be their source of encouragement.
For information on volunteering with the Santa Clarita/Tri Valley Special Olympics, visit www.sosc.org/volunteer.