Volunteer to Warm Your Heart

May 1, 1999

Mary Ann Travis

The Special Olympics changes lives. It's not just the lives of the athletes who struggle with mental or physical disabilities to perform heroically that are changed, says Bill Canning, associate vice president for auxiliary services, campus recreation and auxiliary enterprises and longtime Special Olympics volunteer.

"I've seen changes on campus where people who come out and volunteer for Special Olympics get to know each other better. "They get a warm feeling in their heart that maybe their life isn't quite as tough as they think it is."

As many as 200 Tulane volunteers, along with 2,500 other volunteers, help pull off the huge undertaking of housing, feeding and organizing the Louisiana Special Olympics games each year during the Memorial Day weekend on Tulane's campus. This year's games will take place May 28-30, and Canning expects more than 1,200 athletes and 1,000 chaperones, coaches and area directors to participate.

Most of the events, including track and field, aquatics, volleyball, badminton, gymnastics and bocce, take place at or around the Reily Student Recreation Center. Canning's involvement with the Special Olympics began 20 years ago, when he ran the athletic and recreational facilities for the University of California-Los Angeles. He helped bring the Special Olympics to Tulane a decade ago when the Reily Center was built.

Canning tells the story of Martin, a 27-year-old athlete with mental and physical handicaps, to explain his personal commitment to Special Olympics. Canning met Martin when he staffed a cross-country skiing race in Lake Tahoe, Calif. Martin was the slowest skier. But after he finished the race, he "jammered" away to Canning, talking excitedly before he went up to get his participation ribbon.

"He went up and I walked away," says Canning. "Then Martin's coach, who had been following us all the way, told me I was the first person Martin had ever talked to outside of the institution. That changed my life. That changed his life."

Canning, whose professional career has included intramural, intercollegiate and recreational sports, says, "I've been in sport, in athletics, all my life. I've dealt with the Carl Lewises of the world with the Olympic trials and with Jackie Joyner Kersee and Magic Johnson and a lot of different sport figures throughout the years."

Those track stars and legendary basketball figures, though, haven't impressed Canning as much as Martin did. "The medium of sport, if there is such a thing," says Canning, "changes the lives of Special Olympics athletes more than sport changed Magic Johnson's life. That's why I'm involved."

This will be Canning's last year with Special Olympics at Tulane. He is leaving the university to form a company with two partners to build and manage recreation centers for universities and communities. The company, Centers, has its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Tulane employees interested in volunteering for the Special Olympics should contact systems analyst Bob Turner at 862-8000, ext. 1985. Walk-up volunteers are also welcome at the "People Power Pool" throughout the weekend.

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