By Amanda Diedrick
Reaching for success with every stroke, 11-year-old Serena Newton from Man-O-War Cay battled her way through an Olympic-sized talent pool to victory.
The youngest competitor for Team Bahamas at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, Serena won Silver medals in both the 25 metre breast stroke and the 4 x 25 metre relay.
Comprised of two dozen athletes, Team Bahamas brought home a total of 26 medals – 11 Gold, 10 Silver and 5 Bronze – from the games, which took place July 26 – August 2 and attracted 6,500 competitors from 150 countries participating in 25 different sports.
Through sports, the Special Olympics organization is changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities who so often are measured by their challenges rather than their abilities and potential to contribute.
For Serena, change began two years ago. After years of struggling in school, she was accepted into Marsh Harbour’s Every Child Counts. ECC offers alternative education for young people with developmental or physical disabilities.
Before ECC, Serena was withdrawn and unhappy. Unable to keep up with her classmates, she failed first and second grades. Other students teased and ridiculed her.
“She hated school,” says Serena’s father, Jerry Newton. “She even hated homework.” In public, she hid behind her parents and seldom spoke.
When she was finally old enough for a comprehensive assessment, Serena was diagnosed with a cognitive disability. “She can learn,” says her mother, Carmon Newton, “but she needs to be taught a different way.”
As it does with all students, ECC tailored a curriculum to Serena’s specific challenges. Instead of book work, for example, she’s learning arithmetic by calculating daily production counts at ECC’s Starfish Enterprises training center.
At ECC, Serena found herself in a community with a close connection to the Special Olympics organization. Soon, she began running in track and field events. Not long after, she added swimming to her athletic pursuits.
“Special Olympics events allow less fortunate and isolated athletes to explore their abilities and socialize in a place they feel comfortable,” says Nicole DeNardin, Team Bahamas’ Athletics coach and head of Abaco’s fledgling Special Olympics program.
“One ECC graduate comes to me all the time to check when we are going [to competitions], and to be sure he makes all the training. He talks about it all year.”
Two years later, Serena’s parents report remarkable changes in their daughter. “She’s far more verbal and outgoing,” says Mrs. Newton. “She’s developed such confidence in herself.”
So much so that when Special Olympics Bahamas invited Serena – who had been swimming competitively for less than a year – to join their World Games aquatics team, she agreed, even though it meant traveling without her family and leaving the security of home for nearly two weeks.
“She’s just a different child now,” says her father. “She’s really starting to shine.”
Special Olympics Abaco hopes to bring changes like these to other Abaconians with intellectual challenges. But they need community support. “We’re trying to expand,” said Coach DeNardin. “But we need more coaches to get involved.”
To learn more about Special Olympics Abaco, contact Nicole DeNardin at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.sobahamas.org. For more information about Every Child Counts, visit www.everychildcountsabaco.org.