[caps]G[/caps]rasping a worn black bat in his palms, Paul Harvey adjusts his posture to find the right distance between his black shoes that grip the brown earth. His eyes on the ball, Harvey swings with perfect timing and strength, strikes the ball near the outfield fence, and reaches third base.
The next batter is up, but he stands outside the batter’s box, unaware of this mistake. Harvey instructs him to move forward, but the batter proceeds too far. Harvey jogs to his side, guides him to where he should stand, and corrects his stance.
Harvey has been a volunteer softball coach with the Special Olympics Oregon since 1994. Special Olympics is a not-for-profit charitable organization that offers year-round sports training and athletic competitions for people with intellectual disabilities. The program provides athletes with opportunities to develop physical fitness, experience joy, and gain friendships. Special Olympics Oregon currently assists more than 5,000 athletes.
In 2005, Harvey organized a Unified Sports program in Oregon with his wife, Susie, who works at the Benton County Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities program. Unified Sports allows Special Olympics athletes and teammates without intellectual disabilities to play together. Harvey started the “Gummi Bears” softball team in Eugene, while Susie started the “Benton Sluggers” in Benton County.
Aside from coaching softball in the summer, Harvey coaches bowling in the fall and basketball in the winter. Most of the athletes Harvey coaches are the same athletes who keep coming back, which allows him to develop relationships by learning about the athletes outside of practice.
However, the bond between Harvey and intellectually disabled people was a gradual outcome of contact and awareness.
Harvey painfully recalls a time when he avoided people who seemed “different.” He never learned to drive, so his mode of transportation is mainly the bus. “I would see people with developmental disabilities on the bus, and I wouldn’t make eye contact, or I wouldn’t sit near them, or I’d think, ‘God I hope their stop is coming up,’” says Harvey. “But I didn’t know them then.”
Harvey’s coaching career began after he saw an ad at work that sought volunteer coaches for the Special Olympics. Throughout the certification process, Harvey “walk[ed] on eggshells.” He learned quickly that “they’re just people,” and describes them as the most honest and caring people he has ever met.
With a flexible 40-hour schedule as a University of Oregon Libraries database specialist, Harvey arranges his time around the Special Olympics. “Part of the experience is hanging out with them,” he adds.
Aside from teaching the fundamentals of the game, practicing with the Gummi Bears reminds Harvey of playing on the Little League baseball team for Madison Middle School. “We get to be kids again,” says Harvey, smiling. “In our hearts, anyway.”
The Special Olympics motto, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” embodies the purpose of sports competitions. Gummi Bears athlete Rusty calls Harvey patient and claims that Harvey does not push them to win because winning is not the object of the game. “Special Olympics is more of a fun activity, it’s more recreation,” says Rusty. “Without Special Olympics, we would not know what we will do if we didn’t have sports.”
Josh, a Special Olympics track athlete who supports and helps organize the Gummi Bears’ equipment during practice, constantly greets and cheers for Harvey. Putting both hands on his chest, Josh declares, “Paul is my friend.” He presses his palm to his forehead, as if he forgot to include something important. “Oh yeah, he is my bowling coach.”
This special rapport is common between Harvey and the athletes. “There’s a lot of teasing, kind of just making sure they’re on their toes. It’s fun,” says Susie. Since Harvey likes to maintain a fun and playful environment among the athletes, they tease him right back. Harvey considers the athletes as his friends. “He treats them as equals—he treats them just like he would any other nondisabled person on any other team,” Susie claims.
To Harvey, this type of interaction with people with intellectual disabilities helps volunteers learn about “what it really means to be a human.”
Harvey, who is about to bat, is taunted by Rob who recites, “Come on old man.” Like an echo that surrounds the diamond field, other athletes continue, “Yeah, old man.” But the kids are unable to break his concentration: Harvey chuckles and swings his bat perfectly yet again. Although Harvey is technically a coach who teaches athletes the values of the game and the importance of having good skills, he stands on the field as a student to the surmountable differences among people that one can overcome.