An Orange County athlete ranks the importance of Special Olympics
Recently nine-year-old Natalia Fouts of Chapel Hill was asked what in her life was most important to her. The nine year-old who has been participating in Special Olympics for just the past two years launched into a response laden with Special Olympics references.
“April, (a Special Olympics Orange County coach whom she adores), Coach Bernie (SOOC athletics coach), Coach Pat (SOOC softball coach), Evie (her sister), Coach Mike (SOOC coach) and Colleen (SOOC local coordinator) and bathtubs and lights too.”
Her parents Elizabeth Fouts and Melanie Edwards were shocked they didn’t “make the cut” but so very happy that Special Olympics has made such a huge impact on their daughter’s life. New experiences are difficult for Natalia, whom her parents adopted from Russia. She has autism, a cleft palate and hearing issues.
When Natalia first joined Special Olympics she refused to participate in practice. She sat on the blanket with her family and watched soccer practice; she sat in the bleachers during basketball and watched practice, and so on and so forth. Occasionally she would engage for a few minutes at a time, as long as her mom was with her. She refused to acknowledge the other coaches or athletes. But this past year the world opened up to her and she has become more open to trying new things.
“Special Olympics has been a perfect fit,” her mother, Elizabeth, said. “She asks about her different coaches all through the week. She’s really become attached to Coach April Siktar and will do whatever she does in practice. Particularly in the past year, we’ve seen her grow so much; she’s participating more, following directions from her coaches, and interacting with fellow athletes.“
In the spring, she ran holding hands with Coach April at track practice, but refused to come to the track qualifier when she found out she wouldn’t be allowed to run with her. Her track coach Bernie Prabucki is a colorful dresser and has keyed in on Natalia’s love for Disney characters. He now wears Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck T-shirts to practice to help keep Natalia focused. He stands at the far end of her lane and encourages her to run towards the Disney characters. His enthusiasm and work are helping Natalia gain confidence. By the end of the track season this summer, she no longer needed to hold hands with April but would run beside her.
“She likes my tie-dye shirts too,” laughed Coach Prabucki. “She also carries around a stuffed Goofy that I love. Little by little she is really coming along. It’s so cool to see and I know before long she’s going to be a regular in the 100m and 200m races.
This year, Natalia had the opportunity to participate in the softball individual skills competition at the Special Olympics North Carolina Summer Games, held June 1-3 in Raleigh and Cary. Would she make it onto the field or not was the challenge for her coaches. Coach April was helping at the softball skills venue but the experience was a bit overwhelming for Natalia with so many competitors and volunteers. She didn’t compete but she did gain a lot from the experience at a state-level event. Her coaches and family were very proud of her for being attending and socializing with her teammates.
“Natalia had such a wonderful time – she was beyond excited!” said Pat Conway, Natalia’s softball coach.
“She loved hanging out with her Orange County coaches, eating lunch with the other athletes, and running around in the grass with her sister,” her mother said. “Clearly, this organization has made a very big difference in her life, and in our family’s. We cannot say enough nice things about the support they have given her.”
It’s clear Special Olympics ranks number 1 with everyone in Natalia’s family!