The Times West Virginian

March 2, 2014

Special Olympics has personal meaning for director Leeann Pellegrin

By Chelsi Baker
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — The Special Olympics are near to Leeann Pellegrin’s heart.

Her 14-year-old son, Kyle, has Klinefelter Syndrome, a genetic disorder that leads to weak muscles, lack of coordination and learning problems in males.

He also struggles with other learning disabilities.

“He’s behind in a lot of things,” she said.

Pellegrin must help Kyle get dressed every morning and brush his teeth. He requires almost constant supervision and has no understanding of consequences.

Kyle is one of five children, three of which are grown and out on their own.

“As a family, it’s made us all a more compassionate group of people — more tolerant,” she said. “He teaches me every day. He’s my buddy. If he’s not in school, he’s with me. He is next to me 24/7. He is all about what unconditional love is about. No matter what.”

Pellegrin discovered the Special Olympics about three

years ago when she was looking to involve her son in some kind of activity. She found bowling, which was sponsored by the organization. They were involved from that point on.

Last year, the director of the Special Olympics left her position after 12 years. The group went through a series of temporary directors before asking Pellegrin to take the position over full time last fall.

Her initial response was no. Pellegrin works two full-time jobs — one as pathology team lead for Nuance Communications and another as her son’s acting therapist for a rehabilitation program through the Title 19 program.

She also has an 11-year-old son, Alex, in addition to Kyle.

“I thought, ‘I just don’t have the time to do this and to be fair to the organization,’” she explained.

But then she had a change of heart. She works from home, and she realized she can make the time needed to be the Special Olympics director.

“I mean, how can you say no?” Pellegrin said. So she said yes.

As the director, Pellegrin handles all fundraising efforts, coordinates with the state and volunteers to create events, gets all equipment and uniforms for the athletes and publicizes the organization to the community.

The Special Olympics runs entirely on donations, except for a few local grants. Pellegrin asks businesses to sponsor athletes or to make donations, and the organization holds car washes and other fundraisers in and out of the schools to help pay for things they need.

“We have to raise that money ourselves for these kids to have an athletic program just like the kids in regular education in school,” she said.

Pellegrin, like all the coaches, chaperones and others involved in the Special Olympics, does not get paid for her time.

“The best part of the Special Olympics is the volunteers, because we’re all volunteers,” she said. “I may have the title of director, but I am a volunteer like everyone else who helps.”

The Special Olympics holds spring, summer and fall games for their athletes, who compete in many different sports.

Athletes travel around the state and compete against other Special Olympians from other counties for medals and other awards. The organization is busy all year round in addition to their competitions, with fundraising, practices and other activities.

The events give the organization’s more than 50 athletes, who are of all ages since there is no age limit to compete in the Special Olympics, a chance to be a part of something, Pellegrin said.

“Every other child can go through the school system and onward into college, and they have things to belong to,” said Pellegrin. “Not that the education system wouldn’t let these guys in, but some of them could never compete. We have kids in wheelchairs. We have kids with walkers, and we accommodate them and make them feel like they’re super hero athletes.”

The organization also gives parents piece of mind from being around those in a similar situation, on top of providing their children with socialization and exercise, she said.

“I think it gives us a support system, and you also find people who have gone through what you’re going through, especially if you’re a younger parent or have a younger child.”

As a parent, Pellegrin wants her son to get all he can from his experience with the Special Olympics. He loves the recognition and receiving medals, and he supports and cheers for his friends who receive medals, she said.

“I felt that I had a lot to offer the organization, and I could also mold it so that it’s something my son can stay involved in. It’s only going to be better for him if he has these organizations,” Pellegrin said. “It will make his life more complete.”

It warms her heart to see not just her son, but the other athletes get excited about the games and form friendships through competition.

“It just brings me to tears because at that time, I’m a parent. I’m a director when I’m trying to raise funds or organize something, but I’m always a parent. When you get that new little baby put in your arms in the hospital and everyone knows something’s wrong, but nobody knows what it is, or the doctors tell you, ‘He won’t do this, or she won’t do that’ — when you see these kids out there accomplishing their goals and pushing harder and harder every day, and then being happy whether they win or not, it warms your heart,” she said. “You know that nothing’s impossible for this child.”

To volunteer for the Special Olympics or to register athletes, visit their office at the Disability Action Center, located at 102 Benoni Ave. in Fairmont. For more information, call Leeann Pellegrin at 304-641-9313.

Email Chelsi Baker at cbaker@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @cbakerTWV.