Volunteer Josh Tutterow has coached dozens of Special Olympics athletes over the past five years and, while all have enriched his life, one is extra special: Burke High School student Duane Jenkins.
To find out about donating or volunteering for Special Olympics South Carolina, go to so-sc.org.
The 18-year-old first started participating in the city of Charleston’s therapeutic recreation programs last summer and was among 1,000 athletes competing in the Special Olympics South Carolina’s Mid-Winter Games at The Citadel this weekend.
When Jenkins was only 13 months old, he was in a house fire that burned him over 85 percent of his body.
Doctors didn’t expect him to survive and, while he did, the fire was life-changing. He lost his nose, ears and hearing, his forearms and his toes.
Tutterow recalls Jenkins’ arrival to play bocce and wondered how he would be able to roll the ball. He was stunned when Jenkins didn’t hesitate, picking up the ball and rolling it. That was just the beginning. Jenkins has since bowled and played basketball.
“For all the physical obstacles he has to overcome, he is an awesome athlete,” said Tutterow, who is 26 and works at Benefitfocus.com. “His bravery and desire is really inspiring for me. ... He’s a great kid, too.”
To Tutterow, Duane embodies the oath of the Special Olympics athlete: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Duane’s aunt, Lashon Jenkins, who has cared for him since his mother died nearly three years ago from a fall while suffering from pneumonia, said Special Olympics has been a perfect fit for him and has given him a needed outlet.
“Duane loves sports. He’s a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan. He loves wrestling. He thinks he’s (pro wrestler) John Sina. He’s very athletic. Anything he sees other boys doing he tries to do himself. He’s very motivated and driven.”
She added that Duane has never let his disabilities or appearance get him down.
“Most kids don’t understand that he’s severely burned, so they’ll just stare at him, but that has never bothered him. ... Duane doesn’t care that he has a disability. He’s a strong-willed, happy-go-lucky kid and Special Olympics is making him even stronger.”
And yet Duane’s story is among hundreds that put life into perspective.
Sue Maner, vice president of communications and programs for SOSC, said this weekend’s games were the largest held at The Citadel with a total of 1,400 participants, including 1,000 athletes and 400 coaches and unified players. She added about 400 people attended as volunteers for the games.
She thinks the increase is due to several factors, including more of an effort to get into schools and fundraising events that support Special Olympics.
Locally, those events include the Bocce Bash on Daniel Island in April, the Dunleavy’s Pub Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day on Sullivan’s Island, Special Olympics Gala at the Daniel Island Club in November, and the SOAR 5K on Folly Beach in September.
“Every time you do an event with our name attached we get more attention, but the money raised also allows us to have more athletes here because our big expense is hotel rooms,” Maner said. “We house the athletes for two nights and Charleston hotels are not cheap. And we feed everybody.”
She added that most of the $125,000 budget for the Mid-Winter Games goes for hotel rooms.
“People may not realize that we have a big financial impact on the community, as well. That influx of money doesn’t include all the family members coming down and staying in hotel rooms,” said Maner.
The local games are only one of three in South Carolina. The biggest and oldest, begun in 1968, is in Columbia in early May, and the other is in Greenville in mid-October.
Another aspect of Special Olympics that people may not realize is the opportunity the nonprofit seizes to check the health of athletes, such as vision and dental checks.
Dr. Carlos Salinas of the Medical University of South Carolina dental school had a brigade of dental students and residents on site performing oral health screenings, fitting athletes with mouthpieces and giving instruction on proper dental care.
Salinas said the screenings typically find issues in about 10 percent of the athletes. More severe cases, including an abscess one year, are immediately sent for care.
Salinas has been bringing students to the local games since 2001 and calls it’s a “wonderful experience.”
“It’s very important not only for the athletes, but for the parents and coaches to understand that oral care is integral part of the health of the individual. It’s also important to teach my students and residents that oral care is for everybody, even athletes with disabilities.