Polson Special Olympics coach and local area coordinator Kris Kelly began her career in Special Olympics to help her daughter Kiya, who was a participant.
Now Kelly has transformed being a coach and a coordinator into her full time job coaching bowling, snowshoeing, bocci ball, aquatics and track and field.
“I got into Special Olympics because I had a daughter with a disability,” Kelly said. “I started out my career as an elementary school teacher. I taught special ed and the Olympics was a passion of mine. For most of the kids, they only compete in one sport. Most of them don’t want to stay after school for track and travel with all of the games.”
Coaching kids from 5th grade up to seniors has brought Kelly “much joy.”
“It’s getting them to do a little bit better each time,” Kelly said. “They do it and understand if they learn how to bowl correctly that they can get strikes. I really love to see the joy on their faces when they get to go and compete.”
Kelly said winning is a “secondary goal” to “having fun.”
“I just want the students to go and always try their best,” Kelly said. “Whether they win a ribbon or a medal is really secondary to them doing well.”
Since being involved with the Special Olympics, Kelly has seen the program expand from 13 kids to 49 kids.
The Special Olympics came through the entire valley from Polson all the way down to Arlee to do their torch run as part of the early portion of the festivities to get ready for the Special Olympics state games, which has its opening ceremonies to be held at the Adams Center at the University of Montana.
“They will probably have close to 1500 athletes,” Kelly said. “Our contingency is to bring 49, and that ranges from one of the coaches to the athletes. That is a big number.” Kelly said.
The Special Olympics has expanded its operation in the valley and now has Ronan, Charlo, Mission, and Arlee that formed Special Olympics unified teams.
“I think expanding has been amazing and hopefully, there are five more valley region schools so we can have a bowling invitational,” Kelly said. “The last couple of years, we have just bowled against ourselves.”
April Charlo, the Special Olympics Montana Tribal Outreach Director, said there was a need for expansion.
“There was just a lack of participation in the Native American community and this expansion project was one of the ways to address it,” Charlo said. “My position was to help the schools start a Special Olympic program in their school.”
The Ronan team held a school pep rally at Ronan High School where the Special Olympic athletes were heralded by the Ronan students holding up signs and giving them high fives to send them off to Missoula and wishing them luck in the State games.
“It was really successful and it really gives the kids and community a positive experience,” Charlo said.