Special to The Hawai’i Herald
For high school students Hayden Akau and Trevor Daijo, participating in the Special Olympics and other inclusive extracurricular activities in their schools and communities has given them a chance to develop their social skills and athletic talents.
Akau, a freshman at Castle High School, has been participating in the Special Olympics for six years now. Last school year, Akau participated in bowling, track and field, and swimming through the Special Olympics’ Windward Warriors. She came in first place for bowling. When Akau attended Castle High School, she joined the bowling team and qualified for State’s. You could say, though, that bowling is in her blood. She comes from a family of bowlers. Her parents have been bowling since their high school days. Akau’s older sister is on a collegiate bowling scholarship in Massachusetts. Her middle sister, Taylor, was recently named the Interscholastic League of Honolulu’s Bowler of the Year (2022-23).
Akau expressed that what she likes most about participating in the Special Olympics is that she gets to be part of a team. “I make new friends and I see them every year at the Olympics,” she shared.
Her mother, Jolene Walker-Akau, elaborated, “Especially for special needs kids, it’s hard for them to feel like they fit in and participate in sports that otherwise the level of skill level might be higher than their skill level.” While it seems that Akau has strong athletic skills, Walker-Akau explained that playing sports through the Special Olympics’ positive and inclusive environment is most beneficial, “She gets a lot of praise and recognition that she otherwise might not get like in a high school sport.”
Mother of Kailua High School student Daijo, Lisa Daijo, agrees. “The Special Olympics allows Trevor to thrive. He had played soccer with typically developing children and with his delayed motor skills and difficulty in communicating at times it would not allow him to flourish. The Special Olympics is an ideal environment for him to feel comfortable at his pace and still feel like a superstar.”
Shari Ikeda, a special education teacher at Kailua High School, works hard to make her school a more inclusive community for her students and having students, both with and without special needs, participate in the Special Olympics is a great catalyst for that.
“Ms. Ikeda let us know that she works with the Special Olympics and was hopeful after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted that the students would have the opportunity to participate once again,” said Daijo. “She made sure to let us know the minute we were able to join the Special Olympics.”
At Kailua High School, a small team of teachers work together to get students involved in the school-level sports. Ikeda explained, “Sensei [Espinda] invites my kids in her [class]room so they can meet the gen[eral] ed[ucation] kids and that’s how I get [students] to help me.” One of the unified team sports is flag football, and although Kailua hasn’t competed in a game since 2019, the students have been participating in the flag football skills competitions, and then Ikeda encourages her students to join one of the Special Olympics teams so that they can continue to participate in these sports beyond the school level.
“The Special Olympics means so much to Trevor because he loves so many aspects of the Olympics,” said Daijo. “He enjoys watching the athletes succeed on TV, he enjoys having a crowd cheer him on, and truly thrives when he is around others.” Trevor has been able to participate in two football team events in 2022 and 2023. This year, Trevor’s team earned a bronze medal and he got a trophy – both are proudly displayed on his trophy shelf at home.
The Special Olympics not only provides support for its athletes, but their parents as well. “I also get to speak with other parents of special needs kids who also struggle and get some guidance,” said Walker-Akau. “That helps a lot actually. They connect you with seminars and organizations that I otherwise would never have heard of.” It was through the Special Olympics that Walker-Akau found out about Never Quit Dreaming, which is the first Certified Autism Center in Hawai‘i. It is a non-profit organization “whose mission is to create recreational activities and unique experiences for special needs children living in Hawai‘i.”
Akau now participates in basketball clinics through Never Quit Dreaming, expanding her participation in sports even further. “[I like] bowling, soccer and basketball. Can’t really choose but probably bowling [is my favorite]. I’ve been doing it the longest,” said Akau. As a freshman, this is just the beginning of Akau’s career as a student-athlete.
Nip Ho has been serving as the senior vice president of programs for Special Olympics Hawai‘i for the past 27 years. When he was a college freshman, his volleyball coach asked him to teach swimming to special education students, which he agreed to since he was in college to become a special education teacher. Ho is still working hard to make a difference for students with special needs 44 years later.
“There is no explaining in words the impact that the Special Olympics program has on our athletes and their families,” said Ho. “Sometimes you just have to see the joy and excitement on their faces when they compete and stand on the podium to receive their awards, to talk with the families of athletes who were told their child would not be able to achieve anything and there they are, standing on a podium with a gold medal around their neck. Speechless! Our community is a much better and more inclusive community because of Special Olympics. Students that are involved in our unified (inclusionary) sports talk about how they are more accepting of their classmates [and] will someday become managers/CEO’s of their own companies and have the confidence to hire people with disabilities. An inclusive community is an accepting community and Special Olympics Hawai‘i is blessed to have such great volunteers to make that happen.”
Daijo shared, “As parents, we are incredibly thankful for the opportunities that the Special Olympics has given Trevor to feel more confident in his motor skills and improve communication with teammates and coaches. The smile that comes across his face when he runs across the finish line or completes a pass is priceless … I would highly recommend general education students volunteering, it will give them the opportunity to see truly special individuals who exude so much joy.”
The 2023 Special Olympics Hawai‘i Summer Games are scheduled for Friday, June 9 through Sunday, June, 11 and will feature athletes in track and field, swimming, powerlifting and softball. To find out more information about volunteer opportunities or to sign a student up to be a Special Olympics athlete, please go to sohawaii.org.
Alysa Tomasa has been an educator in the Windward District for the past 10 years, as both a teacher and TRIO Upward Bound program director, and spent a year in Japan teaching English after graduate school. Tomasa recently became a freelance writer for The Hawai‘i Herald as she has always enjoyed writing in her free time. When not working, she is usually busy chasing after her kids and planning events for her family and friends.