PITTSFIELD — Dionna Koenig was a bit of a homebody.
The 12-year-old Reid Middle School student wasn’t always eager to get out of the house, until she got involved with Special Olympics, says her mother, Stephanie Koenig.
“When I show her she’s putting on the purple shirt, she’s ready to go,” Koenig said, referring to the colorful T-shirt the Special Olympians wear.
Jeff Koenig says his daughter loves the praise the coaches and volunteers give her, a real boost to her self-esteem.
“[Special Olympics] helps build her confidence and she likes being around other people and she’s now more active,” said the father.
Dionna was among a small, but enthusiastic local group of Special Olympians taking part in a track and field event at Taconic High School on a steamy, summer Sunday morning. Handling a soccer ball, low hurdles and walking/running the track were among the events.
The Berkshire chapter of the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) and Massachusetts Special Olympics combined to organize the athletic gathering at the Taconic track/football field. It was the first local Special Olympics activity since February 2020, a month before the coronavirus pandemic hit hard and fast.
“This is a kick-off to hopefully more events this fall such as the Humvee Push Challenge and Cop on Top fundraiser,” says Deputy Jake Gaylord of the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office.
Aside from Sheriff’s Office representatives, members of the Pittsfield and Cheshire police departments and Northern Berkshire EMS volunteered to guide and cheer on the competitors.
As the LETR Western Massachusetts coordinator, Gaylord has enjoyed watching the athletes drive to do their best.
“Something about Special Olympics athletes drives us to help out. They have a positive attitude and the ability to never give up,” he said.
James Cowell has had the competitive drive for more than 25 years and has been a Special Olympian since his elementary school days. The Pittsfield 36-year-old reached elite status when he travelled to Boise, Idaho for the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games, where he medaled in a couple of events.
Cowell was competing on Sunday with the older athletes after helping coach the youngest ones earlier in the morning.
“It gives me great pride to help the little kids. It’s good experience for me to help these guys,” he said.
Ten-year-old Jadiel Rodriguez-Velez was one of those youngsters. He became a Special Olympian two years ago according to his mother, Stephanie Velez-Vega.
“He’s more interactive than usual now. He was introduced to soccer and he really loves it,” she said.
Christian Bianchi, of Pittsfield, is a newcomer to Special Olympics. His six-year-old son, Cole, who can’t walk is the reason he got involved. Bianchi helped coordinate Sunday’s event through Massachusetts Special Olympics.
“When I was growing up, these kids were left behind in gym class; with Special Olympics it’s all inclusive,” he said. ‘This is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done.”