2015-06-28 / Sports

Special Olympics a passion for Montrose’s Chris Bickle

By Lisa Briggs
Special to the Citizen

SPECIAL OLYMPICS -- The Montrose Knights of Columbus has donated $46,500 to the Montrose Special Olympics since the fundraiser first began. (Courtesy Photo) SPECIAL OLYMPICS -- The Montrose Knights of Columbus has donated $46,500 to the Montrose Special Olympics since the fundraiser first began. (Courtesy Photo) MONTROSE – After graduating from Central Michigan University with a degree in special education in 1973, Chris Bickle came to Montrose Community Schools to teach and by the following year she established the Montrose Special Olympics.

“I wasn’t a big sports person in my personal life,” she said. Bickle competed in swimming and diving before a tragic accident. “I once was a diver and swimmer, but I endured a broken neck. However, I understood and knew the value of playing sports. I decided to become a coach for Special Olympics instead.”

Her decision turned into one lasting four decades. Bickle has been coaching special-needs youngsters with passion and pride for a little more than 40 years.

Bickle, who retired in 2011 as a special education teacher from Montrose Community Schools, continues to organize, lead, coordinate, develop and expand the Montrose Special Olympics program designed to give physically and intellectually impaired children an opportunity to experience sporting events and allow them the joy of competing as an athlete.

“Attending a Special Olympics event is often a child’s first time away from home,” said Bickle. “It’s a great experience because through interacting with other children who have more severe disabilities Montrose students develop a deep sense of compassion for the kids using walkers, braces or wheelchairs. In addition they get to be involved in the joy of competing as an athlete among other kids with similar disabilities.”

This year Montrose Schools has roughly 24 youngsters who participate in various Special Olympic events.

“We do individual sports,” she said. “We don’t have enough athletes to make up a whole team in one given sport.”

The Montrose Special Olympic athletes participate in winter and summer competitions which include sports such as swimming, track, alpine skiing, snow shoe, bowling and roller-skating. The athletes travel to Grand Traverse Resort to compete in the winter games.

“It’s a big deal,” she said. “It is costly but the athletes learn valuable lessons from being away from their home and school setting. They have a chance to develop good conduct and behaviors when in public and learn about taking turns, companionship, interacting in large groups, table manners, and other life skills one uses when traveling.”

Bickle said she and her team of volunteer coaches practice and train with the young athletes before their competitions and thoroughly evaluate them so that they are matched up with other athletes with similar abilities. “With the multiple levels of cognitive ability among the athletes the Special Olympic officials do a good job of matching skill levels among its competitors.”

Bickle said funding for Special Olympics has not always been easy in Montrose but groups like the Montrose Knights of Columbus step up and help.

“Back in the 1980s elementary principal Robert Pries noticed our need for funds,” she said. “He definitely had a heart for kids with special needs and he got us connected with the Montrose Knights of Columbus.”

For more than three decades Council #8669 has donated proceeds from its MI (Mentally Impaired) Tootsie Roll Drive held in March.

“Chris Bickle was truly instrumental in keeping kids with special needs from all three buildings (elementary, middle and high school) involved in the Special Olympics,” said Pries. “The Knights of Columbus Tootsie Roll candy drive was something I knew to support special education so the two groups came together and a new source of funding was established for the Special Olympics.”

Today, the Grand Knight, Don Pollard, is delighted his organization continues to support the Montrose Special Olympics.

“Every year for 30 years we’ve been able to give to the Special Olympics because of the generous Montrose community,” said Pollard. “Behind every Tootsie Roll we hand out is a generous donation from Montrose residents which helps children with intellectual impairments. We’re proud to say Montrose has given more than $142,000 through the years to its Persons with Intellectual Disabilities program which began in 1985 and of that $46,500 has been donated specifically to Special Olympics in Montrose.”

In addition, the Knights also give to the Boy Scouts, St. Francis Camp, Holy Cross Children’s Services, St. Louis Center and several other charities.

Since 1968 the Knights of Columbus has raised and donated more than $600 million to programs for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Back in the early 1980s Bickle had the opportunity to meet Kennedy-Shriver.

“I was taking a little girl to one of our first skiing events at Sugar Loaf Ski Hill in Leelanau County and Mrs. Kennedy was there. We had a picture taken with her,” said Bickle.

Bickle said the Montrose Special Olympics belongs to Special Olympics Area 13 which encompasses Genesee and Lapeer County Schools and is comprised of about 600 athletes.

“Through the years we’ve definitely received Montrose school and parent support,” said Bickle. “After my retirement a few years ago I worried about what would happen to the Special Olympics program. I’m glad the administration, faculty and staff are continuing the traditions we started back in the 1970s. We are always working to recruit coaches, parents, volunteers and donations.”

Bickle collaborates with current special education coordinator, Cassie Wright, and special education teachers, Jennifer Dunton, Adam Powell and Melissa Duhamel, who all assist her in knowing which students are potential candidates to participate in Special Olympics.

“Special Olympics is a wonderful opportunity for Montrose students to experience the excitement and camaraderie of the sport but also the connection with a team of their peers,” said Cassie Wright. “It builds confidence in our students, offers them a variety of experiences and brings a wealth of smiles and good memories. We are fortunate to have someone as devoted to our students and Special Olympics as Chris- what a gift to Montrose students.”

Kelly Smith, mother of 18 year-old Montrose Special Olympic athlete Alex, also endorses Bickle and her team of coaches.

“My son, Alex, has been involved in Special Olympics since he was in preschool,” said Smith. “It’s the only time he gets to be part of a team and compete. He has participated in every sport offered in Montrose – swimming, roller-skating, track, bowling and snow shoe. It’s changed him for the better. He has learned to relate to other kids in a more meaningful way and it has taught him tremendous life skills.”

Smith has served as a chaperone for Special Olympics for the last decade and credits Bickle with helping to advance her son in ways she never could through the Special Olympics program.

Bickle plans to continue bringing joy as long as there are athletes willing to participate in Special Olympics. “The students have something to look forward to, “she said. “Teachers help the students understand what a privilege it is to train and participate in Special Olympics sporting competitions.”

There are local, national and international events in which youngsters can compete. Bickle took a group to Central Michigan University on May 28-30, for the State Summer Olympic Games. She will also take athletes to the Special Olympic Run which is held the Friday before the well-known Crim Race in August.

“It’s a great opportunity for students with intellectual disabilities to put their athletic skills to the test, develop physically and achieve something meaningful with the support of coaches, family and volunteers,” said Bickle.

To donate, contact Montrose Special Olympics, 300 Nanita, Montrose, MI 48457 or Chris Bickle at (810) 639-7103. To learn more about Michigan’s Special Olympics visit www.somi.org.

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