As always before each practice session, head coach Lisa Bessette addressed her Pawtucket Pacers on Tuesday night, detailing what four groups of athletes would be doing for the next 75 minutes to prepare for the upcoming Special Olympics Rhode Island's Northern Area Games, those slated for Saturday, May 3 at Bryant University.
She stood in the middle of the Francis J. Varieur Elementary School's cafeteria/gymnasium, laying down the groundwork not only for that competition but also the SORI's State Games at the University of Rhode Island beginning May 30.
She spoke of the mandatory paperwork that needed to be completed and submitted for participation in both, with more odds-and-ends included, before volunteers took control of the training.
Bessette and assistant coach Joan Leiper have been doing this same thing for so many years now, they've sort of lost track of time.
They know all too well, however, the rewards far outweigh any hassles: Watching their Pacers succeed in races, on a field or golf course and in a bowling alley; seeing the intellectually-disabled athletes socialize with their teammates with laughter and jokes; or reveling in their awesome achievements and sympathizing with their heartbreaking moments.
Because of Bessette and Leiper, the Pacers' program will celebrate its 15th anniversary next month, and the former sometimes is stunned it's been that long.
“It is kind of hard to believe that 15 years have gone by,” Bessette grinned Tuesday night. “We've seen so many of these people grow up right before out eyes. A lot of them we've had since they were eight or nine years old, and you see how they've changed and grown over the years. It's really amazing.”
What's not so astonishing is how the program came to be.
About five years before the Pacers' organization was born, Bessette and Leiper often talked about wanting to involve their young daughters – Nicole Bessette and Kaitlin Leiper, both with intellectual disabilities – in sports and other extra-curricular activities.
“They were in school together at Curvin-McCabe, and both have special needs,” the elder Bessette stated as the practice moved into high gear. “There was no outlet for them back then, but we discovered Special Olympics and what that organization does. We went to (SORI officials) and asked them for help, and they referred us to the (affiliated) Wampanoag Warriors' golf team.
“We took our daughters and a couple of other kids to one of their practices at a driving range in Seekonk, and they loved it!” she added. “Nicole was eight and Kaitlin nine; in fact, Nicole turns 27 (Tuesday). We had such an influx of kids right after that with an interest in golf, Joan and I decided decided we need to expand it.
“We wanted to put together our own 'home team,' so to speak. We happened to be here (at the Varieur gym) for an advisory committee meeting, and the director of Special Olympics Rhode Island, Chris Hopkins, was here, too. We started talking, we told him what we wanted to do and he said we should start thinking about organizing our own team.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Hopkins helped the two moms navigate the deep waters of creating a squad – the paperwork, the certifications, etc. – and, in April of 1999, the Pacers officially came to life.
“We had about eight to begin with, and then we moved to 11,” Bessette noted. “Now we're about 45 strong. They range in age from 14 to the mid-40s, and the athletes come predominantly from Pawtucket, but we also have people coming from North Smithfield, Lincoln, Cumberland, Central Falls; in fact, we even have one from Cranston.
“We've had some from Woonsocket over the years, but those people used to be in school in Pawtucket but their parents moved or, as adults, they moved themselves,” she continued. “They still wanted to keep ties with the Pacers.”
In its infancy stage, the group still didn't have a name, affiliation colors or a true-blue place to call home.
“We were meeting at Pawtucket YMCA, and we were just trying to get everyone to know each other,” she recalled of a few 1998 sessions. “We were, like, 'What are we going to call ourselves? What's going to be our team color?' One of the grandparents (of a child) came up to us and said, 'Hey, how about the Pawtucket Pacers?'
“She explained to us that, because we were going to start with track and field, you have to pace yourself to walk or run, and that hit us,” she added. “Maybe it was for the alliteration, maybe not, but we loved it. She's the one who named us, and she's the one who chose purple because it was her favorite. Joan and I put it out to a vote, and everyone agreed with it.
“The woman was Sis Genereux, but she's no longer with us – unfortunately … Sis, a fantastic woman.”
The Pacers began training in April of 1999, but Bessette and Leiper knew the squad would be unable to compete because it was still in the toddler stage. How can you run when you've barely started crawling?
“We were too new to be able to compete at the State Games at URI; we didn't have enough time, but we all went down to observe what went on as a team,” Bessette mentioned. “Officials asked us to march (as the Pacers) in the Opening Ceremonies, and that was a thrilling moment.”
Likewise when the organization began, the two coaches lacked any true volunteers.
“I remember back then I was also a leader of Girl Scout Troop 410 in Pawtucket, and once the girls found out what I was doing, a lot of them asked if they could help out, become a part of Special Olympics,” she said. “They saw how important it was not only to me but also Nicole, and they wanted to reach out and help in some way.”
On Tuesday evening alone, she had 13 volunteers on the floor working with the teammates, and explained she had another seven or eight who work within other sports.
“We probably have 30 active volunteers,” she said.
Bessette admitted they maintain sports-minded folks with a variety of challenges, and that all have their own favorite activities.
“Special Olympics offers a ton of athletic events,” she offered. “In order for a person to become an athlete, they need to be at least eight years old, have an intellectual disability and a signed medical release form from their doctor, but more. They also need a willingness to do the best they could possibly do in practice and competitions, but also have fun doing it.
“That's one of my things,” she continued. “Of course, we want all of the Pacers to do well, but – first and foremost – having fun and learning is instrumental.”
At this session, those assistants and helpers provided the athletes with several drills to prep them for the Northern Area Games' track and field events (the only ones in which they will participate). Bessette maintained that competition is merely a qualifier for the State Games approximately five or six weeks later.
“The officials will record (each athlete's) times and/or distances, and we'll submit them to Special Olympics headquarters (in Lincoln),” she stated. “From there, they will seed them by the qualifying standards in each event and place them into heats. Those will also be based on the intellectual disability of each.”
Those events in which the Pacers will participate include the 25-meter walk; 50-, 100-, 200- and 400-meter runs and resulting relays as well as the softball toss and the turbo javelin.
But this is only the spring season. After this concludes on June 1 (the final day of the State Games), the Pacers will move right into golfing (from June to September) or unified softball (June to August). After that comes bocce (September-November), then bowling (November-February).
“We do all of that so the athletes can be involved all year long; we're now looking to add flag football to our sports list, and that's because these people have been pestering me left and right,” she laughed. “As you can imagine, a lot is involved with getting this program to be successful. I mean, we have to get the proper equipment and uniforms, we have to find the venues to practice, etc.
“Because of the cost affiliated with it all, we're solely dependent on fundraisers or donations; we need those to offset the cost … even transportation fees,” she added. “The good news is those things help, but who couldn't use more?”
The great news is this: While the focus of the Pacers' squad remains simple – fun at all costs – they have developed some sterling athletes. In fact, three have earned spots on the National Games' teams that will represent the Ocean State between June 14-21.
They include Shawn White, 16, a pitcher/third baseman for the baseball squad; Jonathan Johnson, 22, who will be White's teammate; and Kathy Krzywonos, a 23-year-old golfer.
“To get all of these things accomplished, it obviously takes a lot of hours – the paperwork, the coaching, communicating, dedication, the practices,” Bessette admitted. “It helps so much when you have great relationships with the families of the athletes and even the volunteers.
“Pure and simple, I got involved so my kid could have the chance to play sports and do other things,” she added. “I wanted her to have the opportunity to have fun in athletics and socialize with others. Back then, there was nothing out there. Now there is.
“The volunteer numbers have blossomed as the athletes' brothers and sisters, even their friends, got older. We have grandparents and parents and cousins and uncles and aunts, even people with no affiliation to Special Olympics except their hearts, who have become part of us. I think we've got a fantastic extended family unit going, and I couldn't be any prouder.
“There are a lot of special relationships being formed here, and we'd love more people to check us out, laugh, play and practice with us. It's incredible; now we're going on 15. Unbelievable!”
For more information on the Pacers, or to become involved as an athlete, volunteer, coach or donor, call Bessette at (401) 225-6305, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .